Wednesday 29 January 2020

Working it out: Ebola? We need to worry about 'flu too

A Nigerian health official wearing a protective suit waits to screen passengers at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.
A Nigerian health official wearing a protective suit waits to screen passengers at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.

John Masterson

I have been pondering the end of the world a lot recently. Seeing it as the empty flying rock it once was. I visualise scenes from Cormac McCarthy's The Road, except that there will be even fewer people. There probably won't be any. Or mammals either. I have no idea what will be in the sea. In McCarthy's horrific vision (which he began writing in Ireland), of the results of something unspecified that destroyed most of life the few remaining people have a very tough time. The battle lines between good and bad were stark.

McCarthy gives no hint about what caused this state of affairs. Was the Earth hit by a meteor? Was there a nuclear war? Did climate change get out of hand? We don't know, but we do see a complete and utter breakdown of civilisation.

Civilised society is fairly fragile at the best of times. A quick glance around the trouble spots of the world today shows one unthinkable atrocity after another. They are fighting about the usual things - power, race, religion, property. I don't think it will be any of these conflicts that will do for the world. And it don't think it will be Ebola either. It will most likely be something more commonplace, and the 'flu is my prime candidate. Humans and viruses are in a race and I hope we win. How much longer we can co-exist on this planet? When I travel, it is a regular occurrence to see passengers wearing surgical masks. I used to think it eccentric. Maybe they are just smarter. Viruses are the living proof of evolution. In 2005, the United Nations warned that a bird 'flu outbreak could happen at any time and it would kill up to 150m people. The Spanish 'flu of 1918 killed between 50m and 100m people, and there were a lot fewer people and aeroplanes in the world. It killed more people in 25 weeks than HIV/AIDS did in 25 years.

There have been three severe 'flu pandemics in the 20th Century. The last time I was properly sick, I was a schoolboy. It was the 1968 Hong Kong 'flu, and it wasn't a bad cold. It killed a million people. Thankfully, not me. In 'flu terms it was a pussycat. We are due another, more virulent, one. It will be a new genetic cocktail and a vaccine cannot be developed to protect against a virus that does not yet exist. As one 'flu expert put it: "The clock is ticking. We just don't know what time it is."

According to the HSE, about 15pc of us get the 'flu vaccine annually. Count me in. 'Flu is a highly variable virus and the vaccine contains three common strains. I hope there is enough to go around. In the meantime wash your hands and don't sneeze on people.

Some call the 'flu the old man's friend because it is an easy death. Well, I have a lot of living left to do. And I didn't enjoy The Road.

Sunday Independent

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