Friday, 27 January 2012

Bird-Flu Bioterror



Bird flu has hit the headlines yet again, this time in response to terrorism fears. Both the BBC1 and New Scientist2 have published articles on the issues involved. Scientists researching bird flu (H5N1) and its mutagenic properties have been developing a more virulent strain in order to better understand and prepare for potential outbreaks, which are likely to occur naturally in the future. However the US government have requested that key details are not published, as the fear is that it could be used for terrorism. The issue is that as soon as research is censored and the information is not freely shared between scientists and research groups then there can no longer be a united global research effort to better understand and combat potential future outbreaks. Research would be unnecessarily repeated and slowed down, due to a lack of openly sharing the information, essentially costing millions in wasted funding and delaying results.


Many factors make bird flu an inevitable threat in the future, as global populations increase, demand for meat also increases and so many people are forced to live in close contact with both pigs and chickens. Many chickens and birds naturally harbour influenza viruses, but it is not easily transmitted to humans, however it is deadly when it is transmitted, because humans are not the virus's normal host and we do not have any previous exposure or developed immunity. Pigs can however be easily infected with both bird and human strains, leading to a mixing pool effect and highly virulent mutant influenza strains can result which are infectious to humans, and have the potential to be transmitted from human to human, if a combination of gene mutations are present. Mutations are common and random but can be under selective pressure, depending on how successful these mutations make the virus. Essentially is boils down to a numbers game; with enough time and enough opportunities these highly virulent bird flu viruses will appear in nature. That is why a global effort to monitor flu outbreaks and develop research is so vital to avoid another global pandemic like that of the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed more people than both world wars combined. While it is important to be aware of potential terrorist risks, restraining research is only likely to make situations like that depicted in Contagion3 an ever increasing reality, because vital preventative measures and vaccinations would not be in place to combat an outbreak.

1, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16662346
2, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21311-killer-flu-research-to-be-censored.html
3, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contagion_(film)

E Markham (2012). Bird-Flu Bioterror Blogspot

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