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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
Epidemiologist
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. Dr. T. H.

    Prevention is better than cure. We cannot always rely on the airlines or public facilities to sanitize everything for us. Disinfect your hands (with the right product), wear a mask when taking public transportation and don't be afraid to call in sick when you don't feel well.

    April 27, 2009 at 8:31 pm |
  2. Alicea, Kelso, WA

    To my knowledge, ones infected in the U.S. have only been hospitalized, but there have been several swine flu deaths in Mexico. Is this due to there being different strains of the flu, or a difference in the types of treatment used to combat this virus?

    April 27, 2009 at 8:25 pm |
  3. Vanessa, El Paso, TX

    I just heard some confirmed cases here in the border city..if we have symptoms, should we go to the hospital? if option is going to the hospital, do we risk other ppl getting infected? is there a phone # to call?

    April 27, 2009 at 8:17 pm |
  4. Lorri Collins

    I would like to know how does an animal disease transfer to humans and also will other animals be at risk, such as cattle, horses our pets?

    Thank you!

    Lorri Collins

    April 27, 2009 at 8:10 pm |
  5. Dell Palmer

    Hey Anderson,
    Why don't you dispense with your coverage of Mia Farrow and the genocide in Darfur tonight and only talk about swinbe flue like CNN has been doing all day. After all, 40 people in the US have been infected and that's FAR LESS than those affected in darfur. What a shame that the priorities of CNN swerve to a story of the moment and everything and everyone else is forgotten. Very responbdible reporting!
    Dell Palmer

    April 27, 2009 at 7:45 pm |
  6. Scott

    As Barak Obama's first 100 days come to a close, his success can be summed up with this fact: We have a dangerous strain of Swine Flu infecting us from coast to coast and he still does not have a Health and Human Services Secretary. Brilliant!

    April 27, 2009 at 7:38 pm |
  7. gloria

    The world goes on beyond me...kids skateboarding in the street; a woman pacing her back yard on the cell phone, obviously distressed; murderers on CNN; terrorists in Afghanistan; swine flu crossing the globe. It's all real to me, yet somehow seperate. I'm one of millions of Americans who don't have a job, nowhere to go every day, nothing to grasp onto. Obama may have a change in mind but what the hell can he do for me? I'm a Christian, so suicide isn't an option. I lament that position. I reserve the right to change my mind about that. I might go to hell but what difference does it make...hell is in my front yard. It's not that I've been rendered moneyless...it's that I've been rendered identity-less. My job was my identity...my world...and now I don't have that. I don't know who I am anymore. I have nowhere to go every day. I can live on less but I cannot live without meaning. That's the sum and total of it. Who can help me now?

    April 27, 2009 at 7:35 pm |
  8. Connie

    My mother recently came back from a cruise in Mexico and has all the symptoms of the Swine Flu. She called her doctor to get checked and they refused to see her because if she tested positive for the swine flu they would have to close down their office for two weeks. They wanted her to go to the ER and get tested at the hospital but her copay is too high so she won't go. If the government is really serious about preventing the spread of the swine flu, they would give potential swine flu carriers easier and cheaper access to healthcare. Our healthcare system never ceases to amaze me.

    Jon from Thousand Oaks, CA

    April 27, 2009 at 7:32 pm |
  9. Tony Pittmon Long Beach,CA

    what about swine flu on the cruise ships going in and out of mexico and other countries how come no one is talking about that as a possible spread tactic for the virus!!

    April 27, 2009 at 7:30 pm |
  10. Muthyavan.

    Various Virus epidemic diseases are appearing time to time from certain parts of the world, threatening the world population, which is in the move daily from place to place,on holidays and on business trips. Mexico is a popular spot for holidays and business trips, and this time a virus swine flu has cropped up in Mexico killing around one hundred and fifty people and threatening everybody who visited Mexico recently.

    Like other dangerous virus diseases which affected many world countries in recent time this might also end up in the destruction of pigs,which is a source of food for many, in large quantity. Earlier some years back a cattle mad-cow disease and later a bird virus flue resulted in the destruction's of millions of poultry and castles around the world. All these are result of inhuman ways against nature, adopted by mechanised farms industry of rearing animals for increase production to markets.

    In another part of the world, in sri lanka humans are also getting slaughtered in hundreds daily and receiving UN, USA and Eu's attention for a halt in fighting. A special UN envoy sent to visit the war zone by security council decision to stop the long ethnic fighting in Sri Lanka, was denied access, by the government of sri lanka, in-spite the LTTE agreed for a halt in fighting. UN has estimated 6,500 killings and over 14,000 badly injured civilians so far in two months fighting in the government declared no-fire zones. No food, water or medical care are allowed inside the no-fire zone where only IRC is allowed to remove the badly injured civilians,over 50,000 Tamil civilians are caught up between the fighting government Sinhalese Army and the Tamil LTTE fighters.

    While Mexico Swine virus flue is hitting world head lines, Sri Lanka long ethnic conflict is also slaughtering many innocent children,women and elderly civilians in the mad ethnic virus disease which has inflicted Srilanka for years.

    April 27, 2009 at 7:03 pm |
  11. Angi

    I live in Brownsville, TX..the border with Matamoros, Mex...I have not heard anything on what local officials are doing about the swine virus. I spoke to a friend of mine and she told me that a middle school in Rio Hondo has already closed because there were cases of the virus. Other friends have gone to local pharmacies, waltmart, and target and there are not mask available...they are all sold out...shouldn't the gov't do something about it? why are they waiting until the last minute?

    April 27, 2009 at 7:02 pm |
  12. John Bottoms

    Can we get some perspective here, please? How many people die from old fashioned regular influenza on a daily basis, by state, by country and globally? Are these folk going to be forgotten, or intentionally ignored. I'm betting the number of deaths from flu way eclipse the number of cases of swine flu. So why not report on those?
    Thanks
    John

    April 27, 2009 at 7:01 pm |
  13. GF, Los Angeles

    Ah mother nature trying to control the world population. The more we abuse her the more pandemics will come about.

    April 27, 2009 at 6:57 pm |
  14. Jude

    How is checking for sick people at the border going to halt disease spread when the virus has a two-day incubation period - i.e. presumably many infected people will seem perfectly healthy during that incubation period ...??

    April 27, 2009 at 6:57 pm |
  15. Lance White

    Perhaps I misunderstood, but I think I saw a story on CNN last week regarding the United States Military having 2-3 vials containing some sort of virus missing from one of their research facilities.

    Could this incident and the current viral issue be linked? I would appreciate more information. Thank you for the great service you offer the people of our nation.

    April 27, 2009 at 6:53 pm |
  16. baron fleming

    IT.amases me the very people doing all the talk about world peace, and the stubility of free thought, are the every institutions involved in the mass genocide of non-caucasains around the world. when we truely look at history we find a paradoxical paralel. we find as we look in time for the last 3500 yrs the europeans have been waging war on themselves,for those under that mentility, along side of and on the rest of the world ,this premise has to be true when this same ideology of the people fore mentioned has a blood lust the every thing that drives men to hunt, i;e kill, to do murder on others as well as them selves. this same neuotic mentality believes in ,and on for all intended perposes a dead man on a stick, and if you don't believe then you are the problem .instead of self interspection this conclusion this also supported by the many military bases around the world whom are also european controlled and maintain,for the most part or at best eurocentristic in behavior.

    April 27, 2009 at 6:45 pm |
  17. nataliaw do w

    there always hiding cause they know what there doing

    April 27, 2009 at 6:43 pm |
  18. nataliaw do w

    hi anderson im in md and i love you and your show and how do animals get the germs in them and how do we get them then why do we cut off sharck fins we need them and them for zero dollars im determinetd for that to stop AND WE SHOULD HAVE SESONS so they an breed and planet in peril taught me a lot and the guy with the big house is hiding everyone is hiding when the see the camra they know there doing somthing bad love natalia quinonez

    April 27, 2009 at 6:41 pm |
  19. Annie Kate

    If we take precautions we should be able to decrease our chances of getting swine flu. Wash your hands vigorously every time you go to the restroom; use paper towels to open public restroom doors; don't drink from the same drink as others; cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and then wash your hands! If you see someone sneeze into their hand and don't wash it and they offer to shake your hand, don't do it. Stay out of crowds. Eat right, get enough sleep, and don't go to work if you are sick as you only spread whatever you have to others. If you are considered high risk to get the flu talk to your doctor and see if there is merit in getting a flu shot even though its not for this strain. All of these things are things our mothers told us growing up.....they still make sense today – a lot of precaution like these could keep you healthy from all sorts of diseases and not just the swine flu.

    April 27, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  20. Jim Carroll internet free press.com

    Some day a little virus will come along ridding on a nose and kill half
    of the people and then there will be a real reason for a recession.The
    recession we are having now is due to ignorance because the inelligentence does not understand The Philosophy of Mixturism.

    April 27, 2009 at 6:14 pm |
  21. Stan

    The Virus: Close the Border until we can find out the course of the virus. Also How can the jets football team give a Rookie, who hasn't thrown 1 pass a guranteed $41 Million Dollar contract? Their should of been a salar cap put on Rookies a long time ago, this type of contracts must really piss off a lot of the Veterans and other players.

    April 27, 2009 at 6:13 pm |
  22. Dawn

    Swine Flu is a disease and yes I do feel sorry for the ones that have got it.Drug addiction is a disease also and there are a lot more people that die from it than what they are Swine Flu,but yet the ones that are suffering this addiction disease can't get help besides being thrown in jail.What about a little loving attention for those with that disease?Some people in KY are getting thrown in jail as a drug dealer but have never and I repeat never took money for a pill or any type of drug.Why can't we get a little help from our Congress?

    April 27, 2009 at 6:06 pm |
  23. Janice

    I have just canceled my cruise to the Mexican Riveria on Royal Caribbean to sail on May 31st. I will loose $500 ($250/person) and don't see why cruise liners don't offer any waivers at this time of EMERGENCY TRAVEL ADVISORY – NOT TO TRAVEL. They are far worst than airlines who are offering some relief. i have not heard anyone report on this and I was told that they are getting thousands of calls. This particular ship hold over 2500 to 3000 people from everywhere and that's scary.

    April 27, 2009 at 6:03 pm |
  24. sandy

    I am so tired of all the problems that come into OUR country from Mexico. Not only drugs and gangs, but now we have more medical issues because they illegally come into our country bringing us their diseases! When is the government going to deal with our borders?

    April 27, 2009 at 5:53 pm |
  25. Mike Schommer

    Since this strain is derived from humans, pigs & birds, I'd like to know if any testing is being conducted among migratory birds/waterfowl?

    April 27, 2009 at 5:52 pm |
  26. Carole

    Can antibodies from those who have recovered from swine flu be used to treat swine flu? What would this entail & how long would it take?

    April 27, 2009 at 5:51 pm |
  27. Tamsmy, Berwick, LA

    I guess swine flu panic helps the ratings game in news land. I remember when HIV first came out in the late 1980's. It was this gay plague that was going to decimate everyone. Unfortunately, today we don't hear enough about prevention of it. Guess what? It's still messing up people's lives. And causing death as the end result. We still don't have a cure. After looking at numbers of swine flu cases in relation to the general population, I think we're all panicking a bit here. I agree with Dr. Wolfe. This isn't the first or last until we figure these diseases out. Let's put this in some sane sort of perspective. And move on...

    April 27, 2009 at 5:47 pm |
  28. Michelle

    Here is the story from the Laredo Morning Times:

    There have been three cases of possible swine flu found in Nuevo Laredo, health officials here finally confirmed at an early afternoon news conference, with no deaths and one hospitalization.

    At least we finally got the facts straight. Nuevo Laredo is a northern city in the Mexican State of Tamaulipas, just across the border from Laredo, Texas. Our Catholic schools have already taken precautions, since quite a few students come from Nuevo Laredo.

    Now, this presents an interesting scenario down here because Laredo is the largest in-land port in the United States. Most of the United States' trade flows through Laredo and we see a lot of traffic from Mexico. So, if anything, we are now in the front lines of the swine flu situation.

    April 27, 2009 at 5:41 pm |
  29. Paula V., Boston, MA

    What is the incubation period for the swine flu? Is it the same as the human version of the flu?

    April 27, 2009 at 5:25 pm |
  30. Michelle

    Hey, Anderson. I live along the Texas/Mexico border. There are unconfirmed reports that the Tamaulipas State government has identified two swine flu cases in one of that state's northern cities. This includes one fatailitiy. What is known is that the governor of Tamaulipas has closed the schools for the time being.

    This virus is just one more crux that those of us who live along the border must bear. It is bad enough that folks think that we are a war zone (we are not). At least down here in Laredo the drug killings have subsided and things are peaceful. But, just when we thought we would get a much-needed breather, this happens.

    April 27, 2009 at 5:05 pm |
  31. David

    We understand a Superior Court Judge on St Croix, US Virgin Islands was found dead the morning he was to preside over a trial of a crooked cop, charged with a brazen broad daylight murder Christmas Day 2007. Hear the local authorities are reluctant to bring in help solving it... Took hours to get the corener on site...

    April 27, 2009 at 4:59 pm |
  32. Lisa in CA

    Call me whatever you will, but every now and again the earth needs to rid itself of some of the plagues that infest her (namely, humans). Further, we continue to pollute the air, water and land without regard to the long-term consequences. We live in an era where we sanitize everything - and that can be good and bad. The bad being that the germs build up a resistence and become stronger; and we don't allow ourselves to be exposed and build up natural antibodies.

    And maybe the conditions in Mexico weren't sanitized enough. We have no clue what their farm practices are. We, in the US, usually vaccinate our animals – whether use for food or pets. I don't know if the same is done in other countries.

    These plagues have been around since the dawn of man. Maybe I've just gotten way to cynical, pragmatic or just to accepting. Ultimately, the stronger do emerge.

    And maybe with this "pandemic", we really will start to believe and accept that what happens in one country – even one thousands of miles away – does affect what happens in another country. Maybe will start to address the ills of our Planet in Peril.

    April 27, 2009 at 4:44 pm |
  33. Mr. Oklahoma

    I think the US Government needs to take care of ALL the US's medical expenses. Remember the Bayer Asprin Conspiracy? We shipped those HIV based Asprin overseas & MURDERED lower developed nations for a profit instead of just destoying of the product. And it was understood that a Dr. Hilary Kaprowsky actually fed the AIDS virus desguised as the Polio vaccine to hundreds of African children in Africa. I also understand that AIDS was actually created from the kidnies of apes along with OTHER biological expirements such as the Euginics experiments on Blacks & non- whites in America. Wake up People!!!!! that's not coffee I'm smellin'

    April 27, 2009 at 4:24 pm |
  34. Jane

    I would rather pay to cure the flu in Mexico then pay when it spreads to the USA. It needs to be contained for everyone's sake.

    April 27, 2009 at 4:18 pm |
  35. Dave

    Will somebody please step up and stop naming this SWINE FLU. While every journalist in the world is bashing my clients and our livelihood, sending market prices for hogs lower, when they're already producing for a loss, please get the facts right and tell the world that this is a North-American flu rather than swine flu. There is NO validation that this started in pigs! Period.

    April 27, 2009 at 4:13 pm |
  36. Geri Gulitti

    Why are the Cruise lines still planning to port in Mexico and take the risk of thousands of people being exposed to the Swine Flu?? This subject needs attention!!!!!!!!!

    April 27, 2009 at 4:11 pm |
  37. John Mendoza

    What are the airlines doing to SANITIZE the planes that people who obviously have swine flue used to travel across the country and internationally? People sit in the same seats over and over and they caugh and sneeze inside the plane and that is leaving thier germs all over the place?

    April 27, 2009 at 3:56 pm |
  38. Mari

    @ Joe G. (Illinois)............ don't you far-right folks, ever stop? This article is about Swine Flu!

    Please everyone, wash you hands, it may seem like an easy, simple thing to do but it works. Also, drink your water stay hydrated. And if you are ill, please do not go to work, school or out in public.

    Peace everyone.

    April 27, 2009 at 3:37 pm |
  39. Cristina San Miguel (Miami)

    WHY ARE THE PIGS NOT DYING?
    THEY CAN'T ALL BE CARRIERS?

    April 27, 2009 at 3:35 pm |
  40. Isabel

    The advances of today approximate people, but also bring their problems.

    April 27, 2009 at 3:32 pm |
  41. Krasi, Houston, TX

    Completely agree with the information provided. It is definitely much easier nowadays to travel from one part of the world to the other in matter of hours/days; and it is not only people that are in motion, animals and food products "travel" too so the possibility for diseases such as the Swine Flu to spread to places located far apart is much greater. Pandemics will continue to occur regardless of how prepared we are; diseases are just one of the many "products" exchanged between people/nations. The truth is, though, that we have better means today to protect ourselves and I sincerely hope that a way to predict and prevent pandemics will soon be discovered. Thank you Dr. Wolfe for the valuable information on people and organizations working on that solution.

    April 27, 2009 at 3:07 pm |
  42. Laura

    Could other animals ,besides pigs,be spreading this disease?
    For instance rodents,insects, birds,or cats and dogs.

    April 27, 2009 at 2:56 pm |
  43. robert contreras

    The lock of participation of the republican elected senators is anti american and not professional at all, these people are supposed to be representing american voters and not they hurt ego, every issue that comes up in the senate floor is a very high percentage for the good of americans, not everything that the president and the democrats are for has to be taboo for the republicans.
    This people ought be removed from office for refusal to perform the job they were elected to do for all americans.
    Dear senators please, please stop acting like hurt little puppies just because you are the minority now, can imaging what would happen if all minorities in America start acting like you (refusing to do what their are getting paid to do), this would hurt America not only the minorities.

    April 27, 2009 at 2:26 pm |
  44. Susan Hansen

    Will someone please investigate the issue of airlines using recycled air in the cabins? I suspect many people will cancel their flights for this very reason.
    THANKS!

    April 27, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  45. Yolanda

    I work in retail and live across the border from Mexico. This weekend we expect a large influx of shoppers because of the Cinco de Mayo celebration. I am extremely concerned because of the spread of the Swine Flu Virus.

    April 27, 2009 at 2:04 pm |
  46. Michelle

    Why on Earth should the USA cover the cost of medication for everybody? This strain of swine flu started in Mexico!!

    April 27, 2009 at 2:00 pm |
  47. Will Dudley

    When this one's gone, another will appear... I'm going to wash my hands, eat my vegetables, and remind my children to do the same, just like mom used to do.

    April 27, 2009 at 1:58 pm |
  48. Juanita

    So, does this mean I should cancel my trip to Puerto Viallarta in July? I really need to know as I just about to book my ticket!

    April 27, 2009 at 1:57 pm |
  49. Ms. Lovely Paula

    Should the Government in the U.S.A. cover the cost for the medication to treat all of who are infected with Swine Virus?

    April 27, 2009 at 1:51 pm |
  50. Joe G. (Illinois)

    Just where are all the Fantasy Hero’s when you need one? Didn’t the Liberal Progressive Democrats recently elect one with the fashion on the capes and speeches?

    April 27, 2009 at 1:39 pm |
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