FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, October 24, 2005

China as Flu Incubator

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek wonders if the growth and increased global influence of China will open the world up to greater risk of flu pandemics:

The basic factor that is fueling this surge of viruses is China's growth. (China is the natural habitat of the influenza virus.) As China develops, it urbanizes, and its forests and wetlands shrink. That forces migratory birds to gather closer together—and closer to human habitation—which increases the chances of a virus spreading from one species to the next. Also, growth means a huge rise in chicken consumption. Across thousands of homes in China every day, chickens are slaughtered in highly unhygienic ways.

Not to mention increased air travel to and from China, allowing an infectious strain to spread around the world literally within hours.

Zakaria goes on to suggest (more or less correctly) that world governments would be largely helpless in the face of a pandemic. Granted, the US and other governments are trying to be proactive about the avian flu, but once a highly contagious strain breaks out, not even the most efficient organization could get enough people quarantined and inoculateded fast enough.

The solution, then, is in prevention... and that means going to the source -- China -- to keep any flu outbreaks contained. Given China's size, such an effort would require international cooperation on an unprecedented scale, as well as foresight tools to help planners anticipate likely areas for outbreak. Money and resources would help, too. Zakaria notes that the World Health Organization's's entire flu division has just 12 employees, and that the US government's budget for influenza research is $112 million -- pocket change compared to what we spend on other national security initiatives.

Source: Newsweek