That was a tragic sight. Children going to school with school bags on their back collapsing on the road and dying. Speeding cars getting involved in a pileup on the road. The reason, driver collapsed on the steering wheel. In the sea off the Irish coast, two ships collided and sank. All the crew of the ships had collapsed.
That was the result of the outbreak of fever of unknown cause during the fag end of the First World War. It was Spain that officially confirmed that it was a virus that spread this killer flu.
By that time this flu had begun its death dance in America and New Zealand. It was not a thousand or ten thousand people who succumbed to this flu. The toll exceeded 20 million people.
Cobwebbed memories of this havoc still shock the world. And now sleepless nights are on for us because of the outbreak of bird flu in some countries. In countries like Indonesia,China,Thailand and Vietnam bird flu has become a horrifying reality.
The initial estimate of the United Nations was that about 150 million people would become victims of this fatal epidemic. It was a relief that this estimate was later scaled down. Even then it was a matter of serious concern that 7. 5 million people were likely to be afflicted.
It was when anxiety about bird flu had gripped the people like an epidemic that I had occasion to visit London. Their Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson appeared on television and said if bird flu hit Britain about 50,000 people were likely to die. He also pointed out that since the H5. NI virus causing bird flu was of a very virulent strain the death toll might go up to 7. 5 million. He had no doubt that bird flu would come. The only question was when. . ‘It will not be possible for us to drive away this epidemic. It is a natural phenomenon. It is certain to come. The only thing we can do is to mitigate the suffering caused by it. ’
Many countries have started mass killing of domestic fowl including chicken and ducks. Face masks and other protective gear are also being distributed in many countries to prevent its spread. In Serbia 20,000 face masks were sold in one day. Foreign Ministers of European nations met in an emergency meeting to assess the impact of bird flu.
If the calamity struck, it was certain that normal life of the people would be disrupted. Foreign travel might have to be given up altogether. Schools, colleges, cinema theatres and entertainment centre might have to be closed down. Most of the people would have to confine themselves the four walls of their homes for days together.
Some of the assessments, observations and studies about the intensity of the ailment are eye openers.
It was in Hong Kong in 1997 that the H5. NI virus was first detected in humans. Of the 18 people with the virus, six died. Though millions of fowl were killed the disease spread widely to domestic fowl and forest birds. By October 2005, 113 people of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia were afflicted with the virus of whom sixty had died. In Asia the virus acquired the potency to spread from man to man. This was gradually spreading worldwide. Between two million and 50 million people were likely to die. The problem is that an effective vaccine can be developed only months after the breakup of the virus into new strains.
The world is now in a pitiable position when nothing is certain.
Experts say the bird flu is not a threat to India. According to Prof Jayasree Mishra, Head of the Tropical Medical School, Kolkata, considering the temperature levels and the immunity of the birds in the country there is no need to be afraid of bird flu. At the same time we have to observe utmost caution on a disease that is likely to become a fatal epidemic the world over. It is in this context that India also started killing domestic fowl in areas where bird flu was reported.
From China to Europe tens of thousands of birds have been afflicted by this viral infection. Once it is transferred to humans it would develop as fatal pneumonia. Though we know that the disease is caused by H5. NI virus, effective measures to counter it have not been developed. The only way before us to prevent its spread is to eliminate the birds afflicted by the disease.
But migratory birds pose a serious challenge to prevention of the disease. If the birds that cross land and sea and forests to come here to roost, become carriers of the virus no effective control against the disease can be put in shape.
There are also serious economic implications to the spread of bird flu. The worst hit by it will be the tourism sector. Many countries have already imposed restrictions on tourists. And travellers will not knowingly put themselves in trouble. Countries like Australia are taking steps to bring back their nationals visiting other countries. Some countries are considering closure of airports and sea ports to control arrivals of bird flu afflicted people. Steps are also on ensuring international cooperation in dealing with this issue. Twenty one countries in the council of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation met in this regard. The president of the National Institute of Health in the United States also attended it to explain the policy of the U S in this regard.
We occasionally see the cruel face of virulence of zoonotic epidemics. It is not yet time to forget the havoc wrought by the mad cow disease that shook Europe some years ago. Three million cattle were eliminated then. Can we be free from the threat of fatal diseases just by killing mute animals?
The pharmaceutical firms are busy in making a preventive vaccine against bird flu. Roche is in the forefront of such efforts. There is also an accusation that Roche is trying to make hay while the sun shines.
What is being done now is to prevent spread of the disease by going in for mass killing of birds. But such a course of action is beset with moral and practical problems. Even after such mass killings the disease may spread as some birds carrying the virus may escape. It is in this context that one has to assess the deviant policy of mass killing of birds.
I have once read a book explaining the special characteristics of canines. About a hunter’s bitch. The bitch gave birth to four pups. The hunter considered them a nuisance and so threw them into a pond one after the other. The bitch started looking for the pups and found their carcasses in the pond. She picked them up from the pond and dropped them in front of her master. Staring at the master she also lay down beside the carcasses, till she breathed her last.
Is it not man’s greed for profit that made him consistently mix harmful chemicals in avian feed? There is a feeling that it is only because of this that the birds gradually lost their immunity and became susceptible to new ailments. The moral question is whether it is right to punish the birds for the wrongs committed by man. Perhaps the dumb creatures may be speaking. Only that we do not hear them.