For the Birds: Whatever Happened to These Three Diseases?

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It seems like every time I open a newspaper, some new viral threat is causing concern around the globe. I remember when people wore those paper face masks for SARS; then everyone was panicked about avian flu; and now it’s swine flu. What will come next, and what happened to all these diseases we were so worried about seemingly just yesterday? When did we decide that they weren’t causes for alarm any longer? Here’s a brief rundown of the major noxious newsmakers of the twenty-first century to date, along with updates on their current status worldwide.


SARS and Flesh-Eating Zombies
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness caused by the virus SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). The symptoms of SARS are high fever (over 100.4°F), headaches, an overall feeling of discomfort, pneumonia, and body aches. Some patients also experience mild respiratory symptoms, diarrhea, and a dry cough.


SARS is spread by close person-to-person contact, since the virus is transmitted by respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus can also be transferred through surfaces contaminated with infectious droplets.


The disease was first reported in Asia in February 2003 and spread to more than two dozen countries over the next few months, including those in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia, before the outbreak was contained. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 8,098 people worldwide fell ill with the disease and 774 of them died from it. However, only eight Americans showed laboratory evidence of SARS-CoV infection, and all of them had contracted the virus while traveling to other parts of the world.


After the containment of the 2003 outbreak, the CDC and the WHO no longer consider SARS a major global threat. The CDC, however, states on its Web site that it “continues to work with other … agencies …to plan for rapid recognition and response if person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV recurs.”


Among the general population, the SARS epidemic still evokes fear, if the 2006 release of the film SARS Wars stands as an indicator of public anxiety. The movie’s plot centers on a second SARS outbreak, one that is drastically worse because of a viral mutation that turns infected people into flesh-eating zombies. It takes place in Thailand, which, at the start of the film, is the only virus-free nation in Asia. But the outbreak soon infiltrates the country’s quarantine and ravages an apartment building, until a sword-bearing hero swoops in to conquer the undead. It’s the ultimate zombie horror fantasy: everyone becomes the virus-carrying, flesh-eating enemy.


The Birdemic
Once we stopped panicking about SARS, a new threat came on the scene: avian flu. As defined by the CDC, avian influenza viruses occur naturally among birds. Wild birds carry them in their intestines without getting sick, but the viruses are very contagious—they are spread through saliva, nasal secretions, and feces—and when domesticated birds (chickens, ducks, turkeys, etc.) contract them, they may become very ill and die.


There are several strains of avian flu that may infect humans, but the one that has caused the largest number of severe illness and death is H5N1. People contract the virus the same way birds do, by coming into contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated with secretions or excretions from infected birds. The symptoms of avian flu in humans range from fever, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches to eye infections, pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases, and other severe and life-threatening complications. The greatest fear about H5N1 is that it’s resistant to antiviral medications. Researchers are at work developing vaccines, and some are available around the world, but the virus keeps mutating.


Avian flu has disappeared from the daily news, though it resurfaces now and again, but it remains a grave international concern. Like SARS, it has not vanished from the world of cinema; just this year, former software salesman James Nguyen produced the film Birdemic: Shock and Terror for $10,000, despite having no former training in filmmaking. Birdemic, which Nguyen took to the Sundance Film Festival, is a “romantic thriller” about a small town under siege by “homicidal birds.” I guess an avian flu epidemic is a good time to pay homage to Hitchcock.


A-Pork-o-Lypse?
Though avian flu remains pretty scary, it was quickly eclipsed by swine flu, a different strain of the same virus, beginning in April 2009, when swine flu (H1N1), according to the CDC, was first detected in people in the United States. It is currently spreading from person to person just as the normal seasonal flu would. On June 11, 2009, the WHO declared that a pandemic of the virus was underway.


Though the virus was first detected in people, not pigs, it was originally referred to as “swine flu” because initial laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in the virus were very similar to those of influenza viruses that normally occur in North American pigs. Though further study has shown that the 2009 H1N1 has a two-gene difference from those pig viruses, the name has stuck.


To date, swine flu has been responsible for more than twelve thousand deaths in the United States alone, and more than twenty-five thousand worldwide, according to NewsBlaze.com. Germany, Portugal, and China are the countries with the most reported cases of infection. The highest death rate has been in North Korea, where 94 percent of the fifty people infected have died. Scientists are still studying pathways that could lead to the virus’s reappearance.


Will swine flu go the way of these other fad diseases and end up as a B horror flick? Let’s hope so.


When Is “Achoo!” Cause for “Oh No!”?
When an “epidemic” makes the news, it’s hard to tell whether it’s cause for real concern or just media hype. Fortunately, SARS seems to have become a thing of the past, unless we see any future outbreaks, but avian flu and swine flu are still legitimately terrifying prospects. Keep yourself as safe as possible, but be sure to get some perspective as well, by getting away from these depressing news topics once in a while. Maybe you should go catch a movie this weekend—as long as it’s not Birdemic, that is.



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