I have a sideline answering questions about radioactivity. Recently, a friend asked: does prolonged exposure to radioactive weapon residue (like depleted uranium dust) lead to outbreaks of mutated strains of viruses, such as Avian Flu?
This leads to the further question of why pandemics, like the killer 1918 "Spanish Flu" -- which originated in the United States -- arise in the first place.
Avian Flu occurs naturally as several families of viruses in birds, who often do not get sick but merely host the disease, like Typhoid Mary. It is noted that certain of the Avian Flu virus types are evolving -- adapting -- rapidly. One of these strains, H5N1, was able to make a jump to humans and overpower the human immune system. This was the outbreak of 1997.
While the 1997 outbreak killed millions of birds and scores of people, this particular strain of the virus had not acquired the genes necessary to make it similar to the usual human flu viruses, and so it was not easily transmitted from person to person. If -- or when -- an Avian Flu viral strain does combine with a typical human flu virus, gaining the genes needed to make it easily infectious by breath: sneezes, coughs and exhalations, then we might see a pandemic. Since the Avian flu that has infected people since 1997 is quite lethal (up to 50% mortality) as compared to the mild forms of human flu we are accustomed to, an easily transmitted form could produce another great killing like that of 1918-1919. Such a bird-carried, human-infecting disease would have a vast incubator in the many industrial concentrations of domestic fowl maintained for human consumption.
I've not seen any credible connection between radioactivity and Avian Flu.
In these last few days it has been announced that researchers have been able to replicate the 1918 flu virus, H1N1. It is kept under tight security in government laboratories. The raw material for the replication was viral RNA extracted from lung tissue of 1918 flu victims; some of this from preserved specimens, and some from cadavers buried in Alaskan permafrost (and none too soon, as it's starting to melt up there).
The 1918 influenza virus is one million times more virulent than the usual human flu viruses of today. Fortunately, people today will have some immunity to the H1N1 family of viruses (how much?). H1N1 is an Avian Flu, which appears to have made a direct jump from birds to humans in 1918 and then raced through humanity without first acquiring some genes from human flu viruses. This is a surprising short-cut. Usually, flu viruses which jump species then mutate slightly by acquiring some genes of viruses already in the new host so they can operate -- reproduce and avoid the immune system -- in their new organism.
The 1918 pandemic seems to have started in Haskell County, Kansas in January 1918, becoming a serious Army manpower issue at Fort Riley, Kansas in March 1918, and spreading throughout Army camps in the U.S. during March and April, and along the routes of military transport within the U.S. and Europe; recall World War One was in its fourth year. In late August and early September it broke out in Boston, Brest (France) and Freetown (Sierra Leone).
H1N1 killed up to one third of those stricken, October 1918 being the deadliest month of the worldwide outbreak and of US history, during which 195,000 Americans alone died of influenza. Wikipedia notes that, "Global mortality rate from the influenza was estimated at 2.5%–5% of the population, with some 20% of the world population suffering from the disease to some extent. The disease spread across the world killing twenty-five million in the course of six months; some estimates put the total of those killed worldwide at over twice that number, possibly as high as 100 million."
The entire H1N1 outbreak was over within 18 months.
What are the prospects for a similar outbreak today? Mike Davis has a recent book on today's Avian Flu, describing the potential for a pandemic.
Though no life-scientist, I note and find it interesting that a number of fatal respiratory infection viral diseases are carried by wildlife that permeate the human environment, specifically birds, deer mice, pigeons and bats: Avian Flu (wild fowl and chicken coops), Hanta Virus (desiccated mice droppings, pulverized and airborne), Legionnaires' Disease, (pigeon droppings in ventilator ducts), SARS (horseshoe bats -- a species native of Southeast Asia -- as the initial carrier, then also civet cats who may prey on bats; the bats and civets finding their way into exotic cuisine, while bat droppings may be used as fertilizer and in medicinal or other concoctions).
The Ebola Virus, again a family of a particular type, is suspected of jumping species from monkeys to humans in Africa. Transmission between humans is by contact (say with infected blood), and transmission by respiration is unknown with the possible exception of one case. Some suspect that humans were first infected by slaughtering and consuming "bushmeat." The same can be said for AIDS, probably of simian origin.
All of these diseases and epidemics seem to spring from the friction of human poverty grinding into the natural world. An unsanitary push against Nature by crowded poverty in search of food causes disease to invade humanity.
Can it be that overcrowding and poverty are much more potent as causes of disease than radioactivity or even chemical pollution? The need for food by the masses in Southeast Asia fuels the operation of crowded and dirty poultry operations. Having smelled some US fowl and poultry operations from the roadside, and been to small farms, I have trouble believing there are completely sanitary industrial concentrations of birds anywhere. Researchers often use chicken eggs to grow experimental cultures (and vaccines) in, so I suppose Nature can use the whole chicken coop world to grow viruses designed for wide transmission, as well.
These diseases may be less those of "the poor and backward," because poverty and backwardness are ancient yet the diseases are new, and more accurately recognized as the diseases of those left behind by the acceleration of industrialized greed, which we chose to call "globalization" to spare the feelings of those who enjoy the benefits of the system they manage, which is "capitalism."
The natural thrust of capitalism is to push into the natural world with haste, so as to win in the race to exploit; and the natural product of capitalism is a wealthy elite and a mass of poverty. Disease springs out of the struggles of poverty. The profit motive obstructs any downward transfer of wealth in the form of subsidies for better living conditions and for the free worldwide use of medical and pharmaceutical advances. Expending the elite's wealth to subsidize disease prevention and treatment generally is anti-capitalism, by ideological definition it is communism. Under capitalism the existence of disease is perfectly acceptable if it is a source of profit for some, as only winners matter.
The existence of these new diseases is a reverberation from the natural world of the human obsession with capitalism; a sickness of the individual and collective mind is reflected by Nature as disease, a consequence of our actions in conducting human affairs on this planet. Global Warming is another such reverberation. The kernel of disease is the idea that our greed and our bigotry can be practiced in isolation, and that this justification sanctifies the practice. Behold the genius of the marketplace.
Manuel García, Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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