Monday, November 14, 2005

Mike Davis – The Monster at Our Door; The global threat of Avian flu

While reading this book, I wondered how the world will end. Will we drown as the rising tides caused by Climate Change engulf the major cities of the world, or will we die in our millions as an unprepared world is struck by a major flu pandemic.

This is a remarkably timely book – Avian “Bird” flu has been in the headlines frequently, yet few people probably understand either the nature of the disease, or the threat it brings to humanity. A threat it must be said, which is immense. The 1918 flu outbreak killed between 40 and 100 million people (a figure that grows to a horrifying 325 million if extrapolated to the world’s population today). Davis quotes a Sunday Herald article that predicts that 1% of the UK population could die as a result of a serious outbreak.

Davis’ documents recent outbreaks in South-East Asia, showing how governments there were often wholly unprepared (often seeming to stand with fingers in ears singing “la la la” rather than face reality). Luckily, either for natural reasons, or due to prompt action by health officials, these outbreaks have been stemmed, yet the potential remains – 15 million chickens died in Thailand in early 2004.

While governments and politicians around the world ignore this major threat, Davis’ points to the changes in human society that mean that the flu is more likely to “species jump” and to evolve newer and deadlier strains. The massive concentration of food production to larger and larger factories, often with appalling conditions, give the flu virus an evolutionary playground never before seen in history. Increased international travel and the huge concentration of people in gigantic slums around the world mean that when it does break out, the flu could travel around the globe in hours, spreading faster than any government could deliver vaccinations to it’s population.

This last point is Davis’ final concern. Modern pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in producing vaccinations for diseases like influenza – it’s just not profitable enough in the short term. At the same time as millions of dollars are being injected into finding ways of combating “bio terrorism”, cash is vanishing from health projects that could develop better vaccines for diseases like TB or avian flu. Interestingly, the Pentagon’s plans for dealing with a pandemic involve inoculating the armed forces as a priority.

The US has stockpiled only enough vaccine for 1% of it’s population. Japan, by contrast has covered about a fifth of its citizens. Of course, the countries that will be really ravaged are those in the developing world. Places like Vietnam, Thailand could be devastated, as could sub-Saharan Africa, its population already weakened by HIV.

This book should really be recommended reading for two groups of people – the first is politicians – if only to hope that some of them might get their fingers out of their ears long enough to hear the warnings of the medical profession. But the other group is those of activists and campaigners because huge pressure must be put on governments and drug companies to force them to increase production of the vaccines, invest in more and more studies of diseases and extend this to the rest of the world.

The terrifying reality of the threat of avian-flu is almost too much to think about. But this book is a brilliant introduction too the problems and the solutions. If only we have time to read it.

Related Reviews

Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts
Davis - Planet of Slums
Quammen - Ebola: The Natural and Human History
Zinsser - Rats, Lice and History
Ziegler - The Black Death


Anonymous said...

Sounds highly interesting ... I'll put it on my already long stack ... unless this pandemic really happens ...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that review. I like Mike Davis a great deal -- his Prisoners of the American Dream was a key text for me when I was nineteen or so -- but I haven't read his latest stuff.

I can never quite decide whether to be doubtful about catastrophic claims (not environmental ones... like global warming and peak oil... I think those are accurate, and it's very hard to see turning around corporate priorities quickly enough, especially since miserable crises don't tend to promote revolution so much as the beginning stages of RECOVERY from wretched crises, cf. the Great Depression in the 1930s) or fatalistic about them. The avian flu, for example.

I should read the book.