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Virus Threat

How do we prepare for the threat of disease in a flat world? Interconnectedness can make us more vulnerable to diseases like West Nile, Hanta, and influenza viruses from all over the world.

In the past few years it seems a rash of unusual diseases has begun to threaten us. These diseases scare us because they seem so alien and yet they are right here among us: Monkey Pox, SARS, West Nile. These new illnesses are all viruses. It's as though the tropical wilderness has entered into our backyards. And they are all zoonotic diseases, ones that normally living in animals and have somehow jumped into people. In today's interconnected world we are just a plane flight away from the tropical wilderness.

In 1999, a deadly disease emerged in the US that had never been seen before in the Western Hemisphere. It was West Nile virus.

Nobody had even remotely imagined West Nile coming to the United States. I mean here is, is a disease, its entire ecology involves the Nile, Sudan, upper Egypt, swamp lands, a very specific set of birds and mosquitos indigenous to that ecology. No one could have imagined it could emerge in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, and Queens, and become a problem that now is seen in almost every single state in the United States. And carried by indigenous mosquitos and indigenous birds.

Partly because it was so unexpected, West Nile proved difficult to identify. It began with a rash of encephalitis cases in New York, then hundreds of dead crows began to appear, but it took time to connect the two.

It's one of the problems in zoonotic diseases: who is in charge. The public health people, the doctors, if you will, are entirely separated from the animal health people in most states and certainly in the Federal Government, the entirely different agencies deal with this. So zoonotic diseases that pose US human health risks are potential big problems.

In 2002, West Nile killed 284 people in the US, mostly elderly, very young or with weakened immune systems. Fortunately, the odds of catching it are small. Eventually people will become immune. The disease has a complicated ecology. Its main targets are birds, humans and horses. It's also been found in alligators. No one knows why humans and these animals are singled out. It's spread by mosquitos. The mosquito is like a flying contaminated syringe. They spread numerous diseases and one of them could even have brought West Nile to the US. All it takes is an infected bug to stow away on an international flight. But how do you control the importation of diseases when everyday over a half million people enter the US. Anyone of whom could be infected.

You know the battle against infectious diseases is like a guerilla warfare. You think you have it whipped and somebody jumps up and something new happens. The, the bug mutates, there is a new recombination of genetic information. It's endless. We will never defeat all the microbes on this planet. It will be a continuous war for the next millennium. As a result, we'd better approach it in a different way. This is not like finding a cure for cancer. This is a war that we will never win. I hope we never lose. But we are gonna have to fight for time into the future.

zoonotic diseases   Those diseases and infections which are naturally transmitted between vertebrate animals and man
indigenous   naturally existing in a place or country rather than arriving from another place
Encephalitis   Encephalitis literally means an inflammation of the brain, but it usually refers to brain inflammation caused by a virus. It's a rare disease that only occurs in approximately 0.5 per 100,000 individuals - most commonly in children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems

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