Doomsday virus – it could happen to us in the blink of an eye

I came across an article this week in New Scientist – mystery disease claims half world population of saiga antelopes.

In less than 3 weeks almost half of the world’s population of saiga antelopes has died – that’s over 100,000 of them. The animals die through severe diarrhoea and difficulty breathing with a 100% mortality rate, that is, if you get it, you’re dead. There are several candidate causes, including a usually innocuous bacteria and a mosquito transmitted virus, but we don’t actually know yet.

Imagine what would happen if such a potent killer appeared suddenly in the human population.

Doomsday virus - it could happen to us in the blink of an eye

There is nothing special about humans which mean it couldn’t happen. No special rules which say bacteria and viruses aren’t allowed to wipe us out. Yes we have procedures in place to limit the impact of a pandemic as demonstrated with the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa earlier this year.  But remember, Ebola is difficult to transmit and only kills half of the people it infects. How hard will it be to convince health workers to risk treating people where its more likely they will pick up the disease and if they do they are guaranteed to die?  Even with the best equipment and training in place mistakes can still happen as I noted my concerns during the outbreak in my blog post : A worrying mystery of Ebola infection.

The Black Death killed half of the European population in the 14th century and less than 100 years ago Spanish flu killed up to 100 million people – that’s 5% of the population at the time.

So nothing really new to report here, just a reminder that we as a species, and hence all of us as individuals are still living at nature’s mercy. Hopefully the amount of work going into anti-ageing research will also help our understanding of all natural diseases and allow us to fight back should one mutation too many suddenly turn a bug into a doomsday killer.

Image of saiga antelope courtesy Seilov.

A worrying mystery of Ebola infection

The BBC News is reporting the infection of a Spanish nurse after treating two people who were infected in Africa. Whereas there must be 100s of infections of healthcare workers already given the thousands of deaths what is concerning about this case is that the nurse worked at a specialist facility with strict procedures and modern resources.

“It could never happen here” I’ve heard said recently as Western countries show off their isolation units with plastic tents completely engulfing the contagious patients. Well I was already worried about that stance – I’ll have to research the number but I suspect theres only a handful of those types of units in each major city, so what do you do after the first person has been infected and you’re already monitory a dozen contacts? What when the next patient with advance symptoms turn up, and then the next? I’m not saying we’re 10 patients away from civil disobedience and people refusing to be isolated but I don’t believe it is quite such a clear distinction.

And of course that was before the Spanish mystery – hopefully this was a human error that allowed this unfortunate infection of a nurse who was no doubt told there was no risk at all to them. However if its turns out there is a new unknown transmission pathway then we’d all better lock ourselves in – and if Ebola mutates to become airborne it won’t just be the children playing ring a ring a roses.