Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bird Flu: The Gaza Petri Dish - Mar 23

Here is a really interesting angle on the H5N1 virus that has not been discussed before. I mean the Gaza Strip in Israel of all places! The conspiracy buffs will have a field day, no doubt about that. "Blame the Jews!" will be the cry, and the ignorance and foolishness of this world, especially in Muslim countries, will be fully out in the open.

The Man in Black

Stratfor -- Predictive, Insightful, Global Intelligence


Bird Flu: The Gaza Petri Dish
Mar 23, 2006

Summary

Bird flu has arrived in the Gaza Strip. While it is impossible to know whether or how the virus is going to mutate, it has a much better chance of becoming dangerous in Gaza.

Analysis

Acting Palestinian National Authority Health Minister Gassan Khatib announced March 22 that the H5N1 strain of bird flu had been discovered in the Netzarim region of the Gaza Strip. In days prior the virus had already been discovered in both the West Bank and Israel proper.

The threat from bird flu is multifaceted. At present the disease is only a broad threat to animals; among birds it is roughly as communicable as the human flu. It thankfully does not pass readily from birds to humans, but more importantly it so far has lacked the ability to jump at all from one human to another.

H5N1 affects different regions in different ways. In Europe, the threat is almost exclusively agricultural. It has been a long time since the average European has lived with a chicken. Because human-animal contact is so thin it should be no surprise that there has yet to be a single human bird-flu case anywhere in Europe. In contrast, human-animal contact in Vietnam is so omnipresent that roughly half of all human H5N1 cases have been in that Southeast Asian state.

In its current form, therefore, H5N1 is at worst a negligible human threat, and even then only among populations who find themselves regularly, intimately and unavoidably in the company of birds: farmers on small chicken farms. That hardly means that H5N1 is insignificant. In order to contain any outbreaks, a single case typically results in the culling of every chicken on the farm. In Vietnam's subsistence and family farming, that means killing just a few birds, but in the factory farms of Europe and the former Soviet Union, it means slaughtering tens of thousands.

The question on health experts' minds, of course, is: What if the virus mutates beyond its current relatively innocuous form? Comparisons to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic are often made, and various authorities on the issue have postulated doomsday scenarios that range up to the infection of half of the U.S. population.

The summation of all these opinions, however, is that no one really knows what the virus will do. If the virus is going to mutate, the virus is going to mutate in a way that serves the virus' interests. For most pathogens, the route to maximum propagation more often than not involves becoming less lethal as they become more communicable, since becoming more lethal wipes out the host population.

But there is, of course, no way to reliably guarantee or predict such a scenario. Thus, most efforts have focused upon limiting the opportunities for the virus to mutate. That means limiting human-animal contact, and vigorously treating with antivirals and quarantining anyone who does become infected.

Which brings us back to the Gaza Strip, the most significant locale to date to catch the spreading bird flu. It is not significant because of population, economic vulnerability or whatnot, but because of what the territory means for the virus' chances of mutation.

In Asia, humans come into regular close contact with their birds, so they are susceptible to catching H5N1. But since Asians have the option of not living in close quarters or of moving a modicum of distance away from the fowl they can take simple measures to minimize their risk. Before such steps became common knowledge in Vietnam, new cases were springing up constantly. Since July 2005 there have only been six new cases, and none since New Years Day.

Gaza, however, is for all practical purposes a cramped refugee camp with a population density of about 10,000 per square mile -- nearly four times denser than packed-to-the-gills Bangladesh. In Gaza people live in close quarters with each other and their animals out of both circumstance and necessity -- and unlike everywhere else that H5N1 has been found there are neither options nor funding for changing things very much. In short, it is the perfect place for H5N1 to practice mutating into forms that are greater threats to human health.

Now as before, there is no way to know precisely what the virus is going to do next, but if H5N1 is going to mutate into a form that is going to cause problems for the human race, it is more likely to do so in a place like Gaza.

Copyright 2006 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.

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