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The plagues on all our houses

Bill Meredith

When I was a child, about this time of the year I would go to my grandmother's house every day to wait for the mailman. Eventually the day would come when he would not just pop letters into the mailbox and drive on; he would get out of his car and bring a large, flat box to the door. Opening the box was an adventure; it would be full of newly-hatched baby chickens. Grandma would put them in the corner behind the kitchen stove for a few days to keep them warm until they were sturdy enough to be transferred to the henhouse, where they were warmed by a light bulb. A few of them would die, but most survived to provide eggs and drumsticks for the following year. That scene was repeated in homes all over the country.

As the population grew and society became more urban, patterns of raising poultry had to change. Now, instead of running about in small flocks on farms, birds are raised by the millions in large, crowded commercial poultry houses. This has made it possible to increase meat and egg production to meet a worldwide demand; but it also has become a disaster waiting to happen if diseases such as avian flu break out.

Bird flu has been known to exist for a long time. It is caused by a virus, and like all viruses, this one undergoes random mutations which cause new forms of the disease. Formerly, this was only of academic interest. A new virus would appear and kill a lot of wild birds, and the birds that survived would become resistant; then another mutation would occur and the whole process would be repeated. Recently, though, two circumstances have become different.

The first difference is in the manner poultry is raised; keeping birds in crowded conditions causes diseases to spread more rapidly. The second is in the virus itself. The latest mutant form sometimes can be transferred to humans who handle infected birds. So far, only a small number of people have become infected, but several of them have died. And given what is known about viral mutations, it is only a matter of time before more virulent forms appear.

Public health officials have been warning for the past several years that bird flu will be the next great pandemic, and the recent spread of bird flu from Southeast Asia into Europe and Africa supports their predictions. This is news of the first importance, and it has been published in various media in recent months; but it has been pushed off the front page by more sensational topics such as the Katrina fiasco, escalating violence in Iraq, the scandal over control of U. S. ports, and the vice president's prowess at quail hunting. So, while "fair and balanced" newscasts keep us informed of those topics, each passing day brings us closer to a potential disaster.

We have had a few pandemics in my lifetime; most were outbreaks such as the swine flu virus, which spread rapidly over large sections of the world and killed thousands of people, mainly in countries whose medical standards were less effective than our own. But there are still people who can remember history's worst pandemics, the "Spanish Flu" of 1918. In World War I, an estimated 20 million soldiers and civilians were killed in fighting between 1914 and

1918; but in just one year, 1918-19, it is estimated that between 20 and 40 million people died of the flu. That year, 28 % of all Americans got the flu, and 675,000 of them died ... ten 1 times the number of American war deaths. The 1918 flu killed more people than the bubonic plague did in the 14th century, albeit the world's 1 population was much smaller then.

The thing that may be different with the next pandemic is that we know it is coming and we have the opportunity to prepare for it From all appearances, most political leaders haven't given it much attention, but 1 the U.S. Center for Disease Control 1 and its counterparts in most other countries have been working hard to characterize the latest viral mutants, prepare new vaccines, and develop logistics for dealing with large numbers of sick people if an outbreak should occur. It is a time for serious 1 concern, but not for panic.

Before the advent of modern medicine, the human race survived pandemics repeatedly throughout its history. Cholera was found to be caused by bacteria in contaminated drinking water in the late 1800s; before then, regular outbreaks of it killed millions of people in Europe and North America (President James Polk was among them). Mortality on such a massive scale results in 1 natural selection; individuals who have any genetic resistance are less I likely to die, and the genes that gave them their resistance are passed

on to their children. But we pay a price; people who have one copy of a certain gene in their body cells are resistant to cholera, but children born with two copies of that gene will develop a fatal disease called cystic fibrosis (CF). So, ironically, although cholera is mainly a thing of the past, it has produced one of the most common hereditary diseases in the U. S. About one person in 30 carries the single CF gene, and one child in every 3,600 is born with the fatal condition resulting from two CF genes. Numerous other cases are known where hereditary diseases have originated as adaptations to major diseases.

While we know our bodies will develop some form of resistance whenever a new disease appears, it is impossible to predict what the side effects of this adaptation will be. As is the case with many modern drugs, the cure may be worse than the disease for some individuals. So let us hope the impending pandemic can be averted. Perhaps then we will only have to deal with the economic disruption resulting from destruction of the poultry industry.

Addendum: In last month's article I was unable to name the play in which Shakespeare mentioned starlings. Since then, two friends have told me the statement was made by Hotspur in "Henry IV, Part I." I thank Mrs. Dolores Thomas of Rocky Ridge and Dr. Kurt Blaugher of Mt. St. Mary's for finding it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith