Charles Rehn - Democrat for President 2004

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The Lessons of Sars & the West Nile Virus


A few years back, while living in the Washington DC area, I worked with a group of people on developing themes in a campaign we called "TB Knows No Borders".

In order to secure congressional funding to assist in combating drug-resistant tuberculosis, we pointed out three basic things:

1) That drug-resistant tuberculosis is on a rapid-increase in parts of Africa, Asia, Russia (particularly in prisons) and other parts of the world

2) That air travel and transportation in general causes us to now measure distances between all parts of the world in terms of hours instead of miles.  That also means that one person could carry a contagious and potentially deadly disease from any place in the world to any place in the world within 24 hours.

3) That because of increased and ever-more resistant strains of diseases and viruses that are occurring, we can no longer sit back and wait for them to occur and respond to them.   Instead, we must be pro-active in treating and preventing them, and developing procedures to contain them before an emergency forces us to confront a disaster.

An additional sub-theme was simply to point out that this  is yet another example of how we can no longer view ourselves as separate nations and people, because progress has brought us to the point of being a true global community.

I'll add that, during this successful lobbying campaign, there were no reported cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis in North America.  3 weeks after passage of the legislation, the first case was discovered in a man in Toronto who had traveled from Europe via Dulles Airport (the Washington DC area).  Last month,  drug-resistant tuberculosis was reported to have tripled amongst homeless people in the streets of Seattle (5 years later).

The lessons of SARS and the West Nile Virus are very similar. Prevention of their spread is unlikely. No method of protection or prevention is fool-proof. And, I believe medical experts have done an outstanding job responding to the outbreaks.

It's very much the same story of Lyme Disease, which I'll tell you about later.

SARS is different from West Nile because it is primarily spread from human to human via close contact or coughing or similar ways. Health care workers, exposed over long periods of time, seemed to be the most affected. However, it has been determined that the virus has definitely mutated into 2 different strains, and that it can remain live and contagious on table tops and other surfaces for days.

SARS should provide health officials an excellent working model on what can be expected in the future.  We should feel lucky that SARS does not actually seem to infect others easily, otherwise, we might be facing a deadly pandemic at this very moment. SARS was originally discovered in November of 2002 in what appeared to be an unusual form of Bird Flu.

It wasn't until January of 2003 that a flurry of stories began appearing in Chinese and Asian news reports that described an epidemic.  It was then that the CDC and World Health Organization decided to become involved.

As epidemics and pandemics go, SARS (thus far) has not been as problematic as it could have been. Experts say it must be eliminated within 6 months in order to prevent it from being a chronic problem (Sept. 2003). 

Officials in Toronto have even discussed the pros and cons of the outbreak there.   Their primary options include dealing with harsh but pragmatic methods - quarantines of individuals, buildings and areas, and the financial burdens that go with it - or to accept that the disease will simply become an accepted illness, a part of life, and thus would not cause disruptions in commerce.

That certainly is their choice, but particularly given their proximity to the United States, it is not a risk I'm willing to leave to other people or nations to protect us from.  We must have a policy that could easily be folded into our bio-terrorism response strategies in order to pre-empt the terror of bio-medical attacks, epidemics and proliferation.

The West Nile Virus is different because it's well established in North America, and will most assuredly affect all 48 contiguous states by fall of 2003.  It is primarily spread by mosquito bites, or, carried from region to region by birds who carry and eat mosquitoes.

Less than 25% of people who are exposed/infected by mosquito bites actually show symptoms of the West Nile Virus. However, it can be deadly, and is responsible for the deaths of numerous birds, and horses. It can also infect your pets.

The most recent discoveries included the ability to spread the virus via blood transfusions and organ transplants, as well as sexual contact. Those discoveries were considered to be reliable (CDC) but not necessarily definitive.

West Nile is another example of how we've been lucky that it has been relatively slow in developing. It's another dress rehearsal we can't afford to squander. But the truth is, as these things go, West Nile Virus has spread rather quickly. It just seems to have happened suddenly.

Crossing our fingers and hoping we'll always catch it before it becomes a problem is not an acceptable solution. It's more than just a medical issue, it's an ecological issue as well. That's what I'll talk about next.

Lyme Disease: A Quiet Cycle of Development & Despair

Lyme disease is another kind of "silent enemy" that is slowly gaining on us. It, too, goes relatively unnoticed, but, since 1982 when the CDC began actively tracking the disease, more than 100,000 people in the United States have been infected.

Lyme disease is spread by ticks. Like West Nile Virus being passed by mosquitoes, the ticks primarily infect small mammals. But, of course, as the separation between wildlife and people are reduced in our dwindling habitats, the pests increase as well, and we and our pets become infected. It's very much a pyramid effect. One of those things you don't think about happening to you.

The spread of Lyme disease is particularly exascerbated when the balance of nature is altered. In this case, black-legged ticks, sometimes called deer ticks, are multiplying at a great rate because the deer populations, particularly in the Northeast, Great Lakes States, and the Northern California/Southern Oregon regions, have greatly increased while their predators have decreased, and nature is out of balance.

Deer populations are estimated to have grown from 500,000 in 1900, to more than 30 million.

The effect of Lyme disease on people, let alone wild animals and pets, is an infection that causes fatigue, joint and arthritic pain, many times months of suffering once it's diagnosed, and when not diagnosed early, it can cause permanent damage and suffering.

Now, you might say, 100,000 people isn't that many in the grand scheme of things. Tell that to the sufferers and their families.

Even more, consider it a perfect case example of how just one of many diseases passed by ticks can effect so many people, but because it affects a low percentage of  the population, it goes relatively unnoticed. Precautions are not taken. Awareness is not raised, and until a widescale disaster unfolds, little effort is expended to control it.

But, what if you had 500 diseases like this?

It adds up in terms of human and animal suffering. But it also adds when up when you connect the dots and realize there is a greater pattern: that, through modern transportation that can transport diseases globally in hours, and an environment out of control, that until we truly begin to manage our environment - and this inevitably is about managing the environment, including ourselves in the chains and cycles -  we are subject to this sort of natural biological attack.

Ticks spread 4 basic kinds of diseases; one is very much like malaria. And, the diseases they spread appear to be mutating very quickly, making diagnosis and treatment even  more difficult.

One day, due to drug-resistance or slow, but sure growth of such a pest or disease, many more people will be subjected to needless suffering because of a lack of clear, consistent policy on the control and isolation of emerging diseases of many kinds. It's not very exciting, politically, to talk about germs and bugs, and dealing with over-populations of wild animals.

But, prevention and maintenance is the appropriate business of government. Doing reasonable, responsible things that people don't want to think about, but doing them anyway because it needs to be done.

It's the same reason we wash our hands before eating, or cooking meat thoroughly. There's something we can, and should, do about it.

The American Lyme Disease Foundation

Results Mixed for Post-Lyme Disease Antibiotics  When it comes to lingering Lyme disease symptoms, intravenous antibiotics may not improve impaired thinking, two newly released studies suggest.  Besides developing a rash, a person bitten by an infected tick may develop flu-like symptoms. The illness is treatable with antibiotics, but if left untreated, people with the disease can develop serious complications, including arthritis and heart problems. Some patients continue to have symptoms of Lyme disease after treatment with antibiotics

Infections Now More Widespread Animals Passing Them to Humans "There are probably hundreds, if not thousands -- maybe even millions -- of viruses out there," said Robert G. Webster, a leading virologist at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. "We don't even know they're there until we disturb them. SARS is probably just a gentle breeze of what one of these big ones is going to do someday." All the new diseases have one thing in common: Animals passed them to people.

see also: AIDS, Africa & Developing Nations: Sustainability

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(C) 2002,2003-2009 Charles Rehn Jr IV  All rights reserved