April 27th, 2009
11:59 PM ET

The Cosmopolitan Viruses

Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more from Dr. Nathan Wolfe and the spread of viruses on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

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Dr. Nathan Wolfe
Global Viral Forecasting Initiative

As someone who studies how pandemics are born and how we may be able to predict and prevent them, I’m, of course, fascinated with the outbreak of Swine Flu. I want to understand its biology. Where it comes from, how it initially took hold, and then managed to spread from person to person, landing in places as distant as Nova Scotia, Brazil, and New Zealand.

But I’m also fascinated at how the public, media and government have responded to it, and what our responses mean for the future of our species. Watching the response to the Swine Flu, it occurs to me that when new outbreaks occur, the media and the public can quickly forget history. SARS and H5N1 (the ‘Bird Flu’) and earlier disease spillovers from animals such as HIV fall quickly out of memory. Somehow Swine Flu seems unique: a frightening threat coming from out of the blue, and one that we need to scramble to address.

The Swine Flu is a threat. We know that flu pandemics have the potential to kill millions. But is it unique? Was it unpredictable? Must we repeat this cycle of complacency, dread, and panic that punctuates our increasingly frequent global outbreaks from SARS to H5N1 to Swine Flu…

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. People from Mexico can get to New Zealand in a day. People from the rural Amazon or Congo can be in Paris or Tokyo in two. And we are in contact with the animals around us that seed these pandemics. That means that what we’re experiencing with Swine Flu will happen again. And again. And again. And again.

Global disease control today is like Cardiology was in the 1950s. Just waiting for the heart attack. With no sense of the reasons pandemics occur or the many potential ways to monitor for them, detect them early, and ultimately prevent them.

Pandemics are hard to predict. But so are hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes. Yet we would never question the logic of working to forecast these threats. And arguably the threats represented by viruses are potentially orders of magnitude more devastating. Imagine a hurricane that could strike globally. That could kill millions. That could last for years. Would we not want to forecast that hurricane? Would we accept those that said hurricanes were simply ‘too hard to predict’? I don’t think so.

And Swine Flu is by no means an anomaly. We know that Swine Flu, like the vast majority of new outbreaks come from animals. We can monitor those animals and the humans that come into contact with them so we can catch these viruses early, before they infect major cities, continents and the world.

That is exactly what we do at the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, in sites throughout the world. And we are not alone. We are among a growing group of partners including WHO (e.g. their Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network), the CDC (e.g. their Global Disease Detection Program), USAID (e.g. their Avian and Pandemic Influenza and Zoonotic Disease Program), and DoD (e.g. their Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System), conservation organizations like The Wildlife Conservation Society and The Wildlife Trust and foundations such as Google.org and the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund, who are working to create a predictive science of pandemics along with the monitoring systems to head them off early before they spread globally.

We should watch the Swine Flu carefully, but we should see it for what it is: one of many pandemics – past and future – that will continue to plague us until we figure out how to predict and prevent them.

soundoff (118 Responses)
  1. Judith Carpenter

    My son, his wife and 4 daughters live in Queretaro, MX. They are flying into the United States on May 4. At this time there are no masks available in Mexico. Will they give masks at the airport in Mexico City and will the U.S. even allow them to enter?

    April 29, 2009 at 2:17 am |
  2. Dora

    Andy, What are the epidemic levels of alert and what level are we in the U.S. now in?

    April 29, 2009 at 2:04 am |
  3. ER

    I am from Mexico and I believe the swine flu is being intentionally exaggerated by our government (and the US government) to distract people from the current economic situation. The Mexican congress passed 20 laws (20!) in 2 hours... they usually pass that many laws in a year! our congressmen are a bunch of lazy drug dealers and now that no one everyone is distracted with the swine flu, 20 laws are passed...

    What did they passed? Well, basically they now allow people to have small portions of drugs for personal use, the government can intervene phone calls and internet communications, they now allow cops to be undercover (in Mexico that's very dangerous). And by the way, the IMF just approved a $47 Billion loan to Mexico, which of course means the Mexican people all of the sudden now own this much money and no one knows how it will be spent. Interestingly enough, the media in Mexico is only talking about the swine flu and none of this. This is why Mexico has been the only Country with swine flu victims.

    April 29, 2009 at 12:18 am |
  4. Sandy Hawks

    Are there any cases in the Panhandle of Texas and Oklohama? And are there any in North Carolina? When should one go to the doctor is suspected? Who is at higher risk for taking the virus?
    Sandy Hawks

    April 28, 2009 at 11:53 pm |
  5. Tod

    Isn't this the first time a portion of the avian virus, aka "bird flu," has been directly passed from person to person so easily (if at all)? I'm hearing this virus is a combination of 2 swine flus, an avian flu and a human flu. If that IS the case why aren't we hearing more concern about the NEW ability of the bird flu virus to easily pass between people? THAT seems like the more dangerous aspect of this rising epidemic/pandemic.

    –Tucson, AZ

    April 28, 2009 at 11:51 pm |
  6. Joanne

    I have 2 coworkers who recently came back from Mexico. They show no symptoms, however, I'm wondering if they can carry the virus and spread it to all of us at work before major symptoms start kicking in?

    April 28, 2009 at 11:36 pm |
  7. Brandi

    I am U.S. Citizen who lives and works in Tecate, Mexico, border town close to Tijuana. I work at a health and fitness spa here. This Swine Flu alert feels a bit like the recent "border violence" scare. The Media is completely blowing the problem out of proportion. I go to Tijuana, I spend all of my time in Tecate and this border violence is non-existent to non-drug related citizens. I've not seen a single thing, not ONE! (I lived in San Jose, Costa Rica for awhile and that is 10 times for violent than Tijuana in my experience) Is it possible that this is ALL just an attempt by the U.S. government to keep people out of Mexico and keep them spending their money in the U.S. during a time of economic crisis?

    April 28, 2009 at 11:34 pm |
  8. Michelle

    I was driving through downtown Laredo today. Now, yesterday, the governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, of which Nuevo Laredo, Mexico is a part, ordered all schools to be closed until futher notice. Here is the funny part. During my sojourn through downtown, I encountered a lot of children wearing masks. These could not have been our kids because they were in school.

    This begs a question. Why, if the governor ordered the schools closed for the time being, would a responsible parent bring her child to Laredo, Texas to come and shop? This is not a holiday for the kids. They were sent home for a reason. In fact, I also encountered a lot of adults walking around downtown Laredo wearing masks. Furthermore, at International Bridge 2 (Juarez-Lincoln Bridge; Laredo has four crossings), there were buses coming in from the interior of Mexico. Passive screening just does not cut it. Nuevo Laredo's authorities, for their part, are conducting thorough screenings 13 miles outside of the city (southside).

    Our city's health department director told us that face masks don't do squat. The only ones who need to wear them are the healthcare workers, but, not us.

    April 28, 2009 at 11:33 pm |
  9. Eileen

    The WHO website states it is not issuing any travel restriction advisory to Mexico. The CDC website is advising us "to avoid non essential travel to Mexico". Our cruise line is stopping in Mexico as of today. We leave Sat. How can two agencies issue such different recommendations.

    April 28, 2009 at 11:30 pm |
  10. Kendra

    Why aren't you reporting the new cases in the US? It is up to 68 now, one in Indiana.

    April 28, 2009 at 11:24 pm |
  11. Anthony, UCLA

    Even though the masks are supposed to help, if you really think about it, aren’t they doing more harm than good? Those masks aren’t very comfortable, probably causing people to touch their face more often! That’s worse!

    April 28, 2009 at 11:18 pm |
  12. Kat

    I'm supposed to go to West Africa in 3 weeks (May 18) and my layover is in Paris. Should I be worried about travel bans canceling my trip?

    April 28, 2009 at 11:16 pm |
  13. Emma

    Why doesn't the US close the border!!! Why doesn't the US quarantine people - they didn't let peole in through Ellis Island when TB was prevalent. Why not this?

    April 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm |
  14. josh

    Should we avoid eating or cooking pork while this (hopefully) blows over?

    April 28, 2009 at 11:11 pm |
  15. dallas

    i want to know why people arent asking the question of do we have tamiflue here in mexico....i live in cancun and there is none to be found, and dont know when we will get it....maby people are dying here because we dont have the proper meds......

    April 28, 2009 at 10:11 am |
  16. Jill

    Please, please someone mention the source of this swine flu! I am shocked and dismayed that it is not being addressed in the media in the US. It is all over the news in Mexico. It apparently originated at a pig confinement facility in Perote, Mexico. These pigs are kept in abhorrent conditions. Spaces so tight they cannot move, standing in their own feces and perpetually dosed with antibiotics because they are so unhealthy.

    As a reputable news station don't you think you should at least look into this? I suspect that this news is kept quiet because of all the confinement facilities here in the US. That is one industry that deserves to take a hit!

    April 28, 2009 at 10:02 am |
  17. Noella Marie MacDonald

    Reportedly, this swine flu virus is the same type of virus that caused the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. One issue I haven't heard discussed is the positive aspect of much improved public health knowledge regarding basic hygeine.
    In 1918 people didn't have running water, often the family shared a water pitcher, and washing bowl. Frequent handwashing would not have been encouraged.
    Disinfectants (something as basic as household bleach), hand cleansers, face masks, and anti-virals all improve outcomes, but basic hygeine knowledge can go a long way to prevent rampant spreading of the virus.

    April 28, 2009 at 9:56 am |
  18. Julia

    Since CNN is trying to report the facts "not the hype", I just wanted to clarify one point. Along the bottom of the screen on CNN are pieces of information keeping us up to date. Last night, it kept saying that there are "6 confirmed deaths in Canada" from the Swine Flu. This is NOT true – there have been 6 cases, NO deaths in Canada at this point. As a Canadian fan of CNN, I just had to let you know! By the way, our capital city, "Ottawa" was also spelled incorrectly on CNN when President Obama visited a few weeks ago. You had spelled it Ottowa. I'm sure we would have been corrected if we spelled the President's name Oboma...
    Loving you CNN!!

    April 28, 2009 at 9:16 am |
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