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One Flu Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Gava Fox gets to grips with the realities of coronavirus and its place in the pantheon of viral pandemics.

Gava Fox

You’d have to have been living in a cave – where at least you’d be safe from infection – to have missed news of the coronavirus epidemic that is sweeping the world.

With its origins in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the virus crossed over to humans from wild animals slaughtered for the pot in a city wet market. The two main theories suggest it either came from bats, a rare winter delicacy in Hubei province, or pangolins, the harmless anteater – the world’s most trafficked animal – which is slaughtered by the millions for its scales, which are made out of the same material as fingernails but many mistakenly believe have medicinal properties.

The Chinese penchant for exotic food is well known: you can eat anything with legs apart from a table, the old joke goes, anything with wings apart from an aeroplane, and anything in water apart from a boat. News that the pangolin may have been the source of the new virus may turn out to be its salvation.

This crossover of unknown viruses from animal to human is becoming increasingly common as we encroach on wild habitats. HIV, which causes AIDS, is believed to have mutated from the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus first found in chimpanzees in the Belgian Congo in the 1920s. Why didn’t it spread as swiftly then as it did from the 1980s onwards? Simply because the world wasn’t as connected as it is today.

Bird flu, swine fever, mad cow disease . . . all these viruses originated in animals, but because of our increasingly close contact with them – and a lack of attention to basic hygiene – conditions were ripe for them to change their basic genetic structure and turn their attention to us.

Unlike bacteria, which were the first living things on earth, viruses are considered to be organisms “on the edge of life”. They carry genetic material, reproduce and evolve through natural selection, but lack key cells that are generally considered necessary to count as life.
Still, the impact they have on our lives is immense.

You can treat bacterial infections with antibiotics, although our insistence on taking them to treat everything from a cough to a scratch is helping breed super-resistant strains that defy our ability to keep pace.

Viruses, however, are different.

They tend not to kill by themselves, but rather weaken our immune systems and lead us to succumb to other illnesses. With AIDS, for example, it isn’t the virus that kills you, but in most cases – in the early days at least – patients would die of tuberculosis or some kind of pneumonia.

As a result, there is a great deal of misinformation surrounding the treatment or “cure” for viruses.

In most cases, scientists are not working on finding a cure, but rather on a vaccine – a shot that will give you a mild form of the disease, not enough to make you ill, but enough to trigger your body’s immune system into producing antibodies so that if you ever do get the full-blown virus, you are already armed with protection.

Take polio, for example.

The virus has been known for much of human history – there are paintings in Egyptian tombs showing apparent polio victims – and it has killed or crippled millions of people since civilization began.

But in the early 1900s, it began to spread, and major epidemics began to occur in Europe and the United States. At its peak after World War II, polio was killing or maiming over half a million people every year and it became the world’s most feared disease.

It struck suddenly, afflicted the rich and poor without favour and required long quarantine periods during which parents were separated from their families. The virus left victims marked for life, needing wheelchairs, crutches, cumbersome leg braces, and at best, left them with deformed limbs and a limp for life.

The development of polio vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin changed all that.

Today, polio has been eradicated in every country of the world apart from Afghanistan and Pakistan – the former as a result of years of war and the latter because of mistrust in vaccination campaigns brought about by the CIA creating a fake polio program to glean intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

Many other viruses that killed or maimed millions have similarly been defeated.

Smallpox is an even greater success story.

It was known as “smallpox” to distinguish it from syphilis, which was called “the great pox”, but is estimated to have killed up to 300 million people in the 20th century alone and half a billion people in the last 100 years of its existence.

As recently as 1967, 15 million infections occurred a year but, as the result of a vaccination program, the last naturally occurring case was diagnosed in 1977 and the World Health Organization declared it eradicated around the globe a year later.

Incidentally, the only other disease that is considered to have been eradicated is rinderpest, which affected cattle and other ungulates until the last known case in 2010.

The science behind vaccines is proven and irrefutable, yet in the past decade or so a group of people known as “anti-vaxxers” has emerged to challenge both the wisdom and effectiveness of the practice.
The movement started with a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who published a report suggesting a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
It was later discovered he had falsified data from the study and had committed outright fraud to promote his business interests, but the seeds were sown.

In the United States, parents looking to explain behavioural difficulties in the children seized on the false report – some with good intentions, but others seeking compensation in the litigious-mad country.

It became both a cause célèbre and a cause of celebrities – led by Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy bunny and B movie actress. Today the anti-vaxxers count actresses Jessica Beal and Lisa Bonet in the numbers, as well as comedians Jim Carey and Bill Maher.

This “virus” is strongest in the United States but is also found in Europe, Australia and South Africa. It seems to take strongest root in fundamentalist religious groups, where a belief in God seems to trump any faith in science, and spreads via the internet through ill-informed chat-rooms, Facebook pages and Twitter #hashtags.

The result of this ignorance is deadly. Only this year, a four-year-old boy died of the flu in Colorado after an anti-vaxxer Facebook group told his mom to treat him with elderberries and breast milk instead of Tamiflu.

That is just one isolated case, but the effect of the pushback to the MMR has been far more devastating.

Gava Fox

The US was declared measles-free in 2000 – meaning there had been no continuous transmission of the disease for more than 12 months. Last year, however, there were more than 1,000 cases in the first six months, more than the previous decade combined.

Most of these cases occurred among the Amish, a community of Old Testament fundamentalists that eschews modernity including vaccinations, but many infections were reported in hipster California as a result of the anti-vaxx campaigns.

Epidemics have been around as long as people first came together, and in recent history, they have cut large swathes through society.
Up to 10 million people are believed to have died in a smallpox epidemic in five years around the year 180 AD.

The plague erupted frequently – killing 50 million in Europe, Africa and the Middle East around 580 AD. That was nothing compared to the 200 million it killed between 1330-1350, wiping out a third of the world’s population when it acquired the moniker “the black death” because of the pustulating sores it created.

Another 100,00 died of the plague in London in 1666, and it was only eradicated there because of the Great Fire.

More recently one hundred million people (yes, you read that right) died of Spanish flu in two years between 1918-1920, paradoxically granting immunity to most of those who survived.

A million people died worldwide of Hong Kong flu in 1969, but since then most disease outbreaks have tended to be localized and prevented from becoming epidemics.

AIDS changed that. Some 30 million people have died as a result of being infected with HIV, but if you weren’t alive in the late ’70s and ’80s, you will have no idea of the terror it wrought. If you got AIDS, you died, it was as simple as that, but people infected today are leading full lives thanks to anti-retroviral treatments and scientists are confident that with multiple research projects around the world, a vaccine will be developed within the decade.

So why the panic over this new coronavirus, which at time of writing had killed around 2,500 people from around 100,000 infected?
Writing this from Hong Kong, the fear is palpable. There has been panic buying of surgical masks – and toilet paper, for some reason. Taxi drivers won’t stop for you and bus drivers won’t let you get on unless you’re wearing a mask. Restaurants and bars are deserted, and half the population is working from home. But so far Hong Kong has less than 100 confirmed cases, and just two deaths.

Social media hasn’t helped. There has been an incredible amount of misinformation about the virus spreading on Twitter and Facebook, prompting some countries to constitute laws against fake news.

In Japan, thieves made off with 6,000 surgical masks from a warehouse. In Hong Kong, three men armed with knives stole 600 toilet rolls as they were being delivered to a supermarket. Police immediately caught two of them, and when they nabbed the third it prompted the memorable headline: “Police on a roll as toilet paper thief is flushed out”.

Indonesia has remained blessedly free of the virus, although I will take the scientific explanation that it struggles to survive in hot weather over that of the health minister claiming it was prayer that has kept it at bay.

If the virus runs its course, there should be no new infections from around May, but that hasn’t stopped global travel from being thrown into complete disarray.

It’s at times like this I remember my dad’s response to any attempt by us children trying to get off school by pretending to be ill.

“It’s not the cough that carries you off; it’s the coffin they carry you off in.”

For The Love Of The Game