Robert Webster: We Ignore Bird Flu at Our Peril

  1. So who is Robert Webster anyway, and why should we listen to him?

    Remember SARS, and how worrisome it was? No one knew where it came from or what to do about it. Webster is the guy who trained and mentored the scientists at the University of Hong Kong, who first figured out what kind of organism SARS was, and then where, and how people got infected. As Karl Taro Greenfeld documented in his compelling book, The China Syndrome, this was essential to stopping the virus from continuing to spread even further throughout the world. It had escaped already from China, traveled to Canada, and the US (yes, there were cases here too), as well as to other countries. This was a terrifying time especially for health care workers in places like Toronto, Vietnam, and Singapore. The repercussions of what happened to them while caring for the sick, are still with us today.

    Webster is an amazing man, and we owe much to him for what we know about influenza, the disease with the greatest potential for killing the most victims. Most people do not take influenza seriously, but it truly is an awesome adversary, and what happened in 1918 with over 50 million deaths could reoccur despite everything we know today about disease. We just cannot react fast enough with tracking, identifying, finding the source (sometimes we never do), producing vaccines, and figuring out how to treat the victims effectively. We are truly dependent upon the research of men and women like Webster, and owe them a hugh debt.

    It is not fearmongering to entertain the concept of bird flu spreading to the Americas. Why woudn't it come here? West Nile did, and so did SARS. These diseases can and do travel by plane or by wing. Natural hosts such as ducks in the case of influenza, do not usually get sick from the viruses they harbor, and can carry them over great distances. H5N1 has spread from China into Europe and Africa already.

    The question is, will we be ready?

    Quote from
    As Webster told an international gathering of flu experts at St Hilda's College, Oxford, earlier this month: "Highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza appears to be spreading into Eurasia again, most likely carried by wild bird migrations. It's only a matter of time before it comes to the Americas."

    ...Ducks, he explains, harbour and replicate the virus in the wild, transmitting it to chickens and other poultry whenever they defecate in open water. But while H5N1 and other wild viruses, such as H9N2 and H7N7, are deadly to farmed poultry, most ducks do not get sick at all. To date, researchers have identified 16 haemagglutinin (HA) subtypes in aquatic bird populations. These subtypes are constantly circulating and altering their genetic make-up via a mechanism known as antigenic drift..

    However, perhaps Webster's greatest contribution to science lies in his insight that pandemics begin when avian and human flu virus "reassort" or exchange genes to form a new strain, one that people lack the ability to fight. Webster, a fellow of the Royal Society, calls this process "viral sex".
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