Some may have realized that I missed posting a blog last week. I admit, it was not until Saturday morning when I awoke in a panic that I realized I had not written one. But I decided to give myself some slack - I was on vacation. I was enjoying the warm weather, doing the last minute back to school shopping and taking a bit of time for myself to lounge in the sun while listening to the soothing sounds of the river and the not so soothing sounds of my son and his friends playing. I also managed to get some vacation-reading in – some that was completely mindless drivel and some like Nathan Wolfe’s The Viral Storm, which was more educational and helped repopulate the brain cells I lost from reading the drivel...
The Viral Storm is an easy to read overview of the science of viruses. It talks to how viruses and humans have evolved throughout history, how deadly viruses like Influenza (aka Swine or Bird Flu) have almost wiped us out and why modern life that we love so much has made us vulnerable to the threat of global pandemics. Reading it after our recent Ebola crisis makes you realize that while Ebola is scary, there are without a doubt nastier bugs out there, ones we have yet to hear of lurking in monkeys, bats, and other animals that will very likely be hunted, slaughtered and eaten and without a doubt will unleash the next “weapon” of mass depopulation.
In fact, Wolfe’s research has demonstrated the role that hunting and eating wild game plays in introducing new diseases into the human body. The scary truth is the more closely related the hunter and the hunted are, the more likely a virus can adapt to its new host and cause infection. If that new virus can spread easily from person to person, in our modern world we had best all look out because that new bug is just a flight, car, train or boat ride away!
Industrial farming also increases the number of animals and their viruses that we are exposed to and quite literally abolish historical relationships of one animal and a few people. Modern farming has created a web of connections between thousands of animals and thousands of consumers and as Wolfe so eloquently articulated “today, an average meat eater will consume bits of millions of animals during their lifetimes.” Of course, we cannot blame industrial farming alone. On a global basis, most of the world’s population now live in large cities that, from a bug’s point of view, are no different than a factory farm. Dense populations of people provide viruses with an easy source of “fresh meat” to infect which allows viruses to improve their ability to move quickly through a population and become more virulent, more deadly along the way.
Wolfe also details his work in establishing networks aimed at catching pandemics before they start. While in its infancy, it is something that certainly is needed if we are to survive. His closing chapter contained statistics that certainly made me pause. “Around 8,000 people died worldwide at the hands of terrorists between April 2001 and August 2002, a period that included the 9/11 attacks. Between April 2009 and August 2012, more than 18,000 died as a result of H5N1. Shouldn't we spend at least as much on preventing pandemics as we spend in the war on terror?”