Monday, November 07, 2005

Avian Influenza

I just wrote my first opinion letter to the State News (Michigan State's daily newspaper). Here are the contents:

As a liberal outraged by many Bush administration policies, I was disappointed to read the staff editorial, “Ill Intention.” In writing the piece, the State News staff has contributed to the cheap politicization of science.

Avian influenza (H5N1) poses a very grave threat and demands immediate preparation. Since early 2004, the virus has spread from southeast Asia into parts of Europe. That's quite a distance since it has primarily spread through saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. While most human infections have been through direct contact, there have been rare cases where the virus has been passed from one human to another.

That's all in the past. From the CDC's web site: “[B]ecause all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that the H5N1 virus one day could be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another. Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population.” Our immune systems cannot fight this virus, which could lead to a mortality rate as high as 50%. A highly communicable version of H5N1 would be horrific. “Last time we checked, Asia was still pretty far from the United States,” was your snide remark. It gets a lot closer when an infected person boards a flight from Istanbul to New York.

No one can say for sure if a pandemic is imminent or inevitable. That does not mean that we cannot prepare for the worst. Vaccines and anti-viral medicines take time to invent and to manufacture. The proper response to this rare move should be a reminder that this is only a first step. A good next step would be funding for the teaching of evolution (not intelligent design) in science classrooms to further our understanding of the way that viruses can change. That knowledge could help us fight viruses like H5N1.

While I can appreciate that the timing of this announcement is curious, this acknowledgment dignifies the Bush administration's attempts to make science yet another political playground. There are topics that are far too important for this. Avian influenza is one such topic.

If you want some more information, you can check out the CDC's page that gives some basic facts. Or, check out Mike, the Mad Biologist. As he describes in a recent post, I don't have faith in him, just trust.


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