Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spring of Fear

It’s hard to go through April without recalling the worries of the Spring of Fear nine years ago. April 2003 was when we all feared that a new disease named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) would become a devastating pandemic.

SARS killed 800 people around the world, 44 in Canada, before disappearing in the autumn.  We all breathed easier, although medical experts still warn that there will be other serious outbreaks created by new or mutating existing bugs.

Since then, there has been an important developing change in how public health thinks about viral outbreaks. Nine years ago, public health reacted to SARS, as they had with previous influenza pandemics, attacking full force, eventually winning, and then going back to business as usual. Now, however, there are indicators that public health will do more to predict outbreaks and work to prevent them.

A major force behind the change is Dr. Nathan Wolfe of Stanford University and founder of Global Viral Forecasting, which specializes in early detection and control of epidemics. He also is author of The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age published late last year.

Viral outbreaks occur regularly, but the public only hears about, or at least becomes concerned about, the ones that break loose and spread worldwide, like SARS, HIV and the killer influenzas.
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Most outbreaks start with animal to human transmission. So Wolfe and his organization have taken to monitoring human-wild animal interfaces in Africa and Asia where people have close contact with bushmeat, or wild animals taken for food. They gather detailed information through field and lab work and data from social media, cell phone contact and other sources. They are trying to create a system that provides real-time information that will anticipate viral threats and block them before they spread.

Viral outbreaks spread as quickly as a 777 can fly from one continent to another. We live in one closely connected world and a deadly virus that gets loose, could quickly kill millions of us.

Developing an early warning system and turning public health’s thinking toward fighting possible outbreaks in advance is the best way to make sure killer viruses no longer get loose.

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