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When Will Flu Season Become Contagion?

Many scientists believe it will happen within the next five years

Gwynneth Paltrow in “Contagion” as her character picks up the virus

An elegant American executive gambles with dice in a Macau casino. Little does she realize she’s really gambling with her life. That’s because a new pathogen is being passed through the crowd as people press a contaminated elevator button, touch a hand, drink from someone else’s glass. Soon the executive is back home in the United States, experiencing flu symptoms. Then she has a seizure. An hour later she’s lying dead in the hospital. A day later, her son, who had hugged her when she came home, is dead, too.

It’s the start of the movie Contagion, with Gwynneth Paltrow as the executive. But scientists say it could be the start of a real contagion.

The movie, which opened last month in the United States, is now spreading around the world, raising fears of what could happen in the case of a real contagion.

As we encroach further into tropical rainforests, often laying them waste for commercial plantations, we come into closer contact with other animals carrying viruses and other pathogens against which we have no immunity.

The movie follows a script that could easily unfold in real life. The virus spreads through coughs and sneezes, and jumps to the hands and mouths of the uninfected because the microbes cling to door handles and light switches. In a matter of days the contagion is spreading around the world.

Within weeks scientists at the Centers for Disease Control have identified the genetic make-up of the virus. Over the next six months hospitals become triage zones, stadiums fill with the dead, and the whole social fabric itself begins to break down.

In real life, scientists around the world are watching the world’s hospitals and the world’s wildlife in hopes of catching such a pathogen before it makes the jump to humans. After all, each year doctors battle a new subtype of influenza, thrown up by the biological lottery caused by mutating flu strains.

In 1918, an outbreak of Spanish Flu caused 50 million deaths – more than all the deaths of World War I. And regular seasonal flu kills up to half a million people around the globe each year.
Scientists around the world are watching the world’s hospitals and the world’s wildlife in hopes of catching such a pathogen before it makes the jump to humans.
Virologist John Oxford of the Royal London Hospital believes a widespread and fatal pandemic is probable. “If you ask a geologist if he or she thinks a fatal volcanic eruption is going to come, the answer is going to be yes,” he said.

“If you ask me as an influenza virologist whether we are going to have another outbreak, well of course we are. I don’t know when … Get yourself ready for 2016 or 2017.”

Another scientist at the vanguard of the fight is biologist Nathan Wolfe, head of Global Viral Forecasting (GVF), who was another adviser to Soderbergh.

In his new book, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, Wolfe lays out in frightening detail how our extremely interconnected modern world is the perfect setting for the spread of new catastrophic diseases. He takes us to the origins of some of mankind’s deadliest plagues, and outlines how we can protect ourselves from future scourges. You can read an excerpt here.

Among the organizations that fund Wolfe and his staff are the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Google. In some of the rain forests of West Africa his team works in remote, poverty-stricken settlements where animal pathogens are most likely to make the jump to human beings. Wolfe says these high-risk groups are likely to be the first to be infected by any new strains of monkey pox, AIDS or bird flu. And bird flu is still the contagion that worries most scientists.

The main cause of the problem here is humans eating the meat of infected chimpanzees, who are a major source of both nourishment and deadly infection. Hunters sell chimp carcasses at market for $20 each. For their part, chimpanzees have also been known to grab children from the villages, and kill and eat them – which can move human viruses back to the monkey population, so that they mix with chimp viruses and pass an even more potentially deadly virus back to humans when hunters later catch them.

Wolfe calls this set-up “the perfect recipe for pandemics.”

“As we move animals quickly and efficiently around the world, microbes that have never encountered each other until now will form new mosaic agents capable of spreading in ways that neither of their parents could manage,” he said.

“The world is porous,” said Dr. Angus Nicoll, head of influenza co-ordination at the European Centre for Disease Control in Stockholm. “Mother Nature is the biggest bio-terrorist around. The idea that you can shut out all viruses is a non-starter.”