NBC Weapons: Mother Nature Gets Nasty




February 4, 2007: The world is in real danger of undergoing a biological weapon attack. This will not be carried out by terrorists, but by nature itself. For several years, scientists have been watching the Bird Flu (influenza strain H5N1) mutate and spread. It appears that H5N1 could mutate into a strain similar to the one that caused the 1918 global pandemic. That one killed over 20 million people. There are three times as many people on the planet today, living closer together. A new flu pandemic could kill over 100 million. Such influenza pandemics are, well, natural. Major ones occur every century or so. We are due, and H5N1 is out there, capable of mutating into the Big One.

At the moment, H5N1 and the 1918 flu are different in that the 1918 version spread easily and killed about two percent of those infected. H5N1 does not spread very fast at all, but kills about half of those infected. When the flu virus spreads into a population, it does not survive for long. Most flu strains basically die out in a about ten weeks. This can be speeded up by keeping people away from each other. Public health organizations are trying to figure out how best to do that. Many are looking at how various localities coped in 1918. That flu took most governments by surprise, and a wide variety of reactions occurred as thousands of towns and cities did what they thought best to deal with the situation. Some localities were more successful than others, and there are lessons to be learned.

Normally, about 36,000 Americans die each year due to the flu, which usually shows up in the Fall and Winter months. A major pandemic would probably kill fifty times as many people (up to two million dead). Because it's currently impossible to predict exactly what H5N1 might mutate into, planners have to come up with procedures that are appropriate to the risk. You could, of course, order everyone to stay home and enforce a kind of martial law. But that would do tremendous economic damage. That, public health analysts will tell you, can kill lots of people. Not just from the stress of financial difficulties, but because people have to eat. The economy supplies essentials, and people have to go to work to keep the system going.

So the preparations for the mutant spawn of H5N1 will an exercise in preparing for a biological attack that will, most likely, come. A manmade biological weapon, like a genetically engineered influenza, could do a lot more damage. But any procedures that would help coping with H5N1, would also work with more lethal threats




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