British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a dose of reality, if not good cheer, for the worried citizens of the world: Your worst fears about global warming or Islamo-fascist terrorism are mere whimpers in the night compared to a global flu pandemic.
It is this type of disease outbreak that has Britain most concerned, according to a new national security strategy.
Attention is on the H5N1 avian influenza virus as the agent that could produce a global outbreak, since it is so deadly and could mutate into a form that might be easily transmissible from human to human. Right now it is primarily transferred among birds, occasionally from birds to humans and rarely from human to human. Still, current outbreaks in Indonesia (129 cases, 105 dead), Vietnam (106 cases, 52 dead), and Egypt (47 cases, 20 dead) and China (30 cases, 20 dead) are being tracked closely by the United Nations' World Health Organization.
Avian influenza is an example of an emerging infectious wildlife disease. The field of conservation medicine was organized to address this type of disease which like Lyme disease, West Nile virus or a host of other illnesses is primarily a wildlife disease, but "jumps the species barrier" and has serious effects on humans. Typically, environmental conditions such as the eating of bushmeat or proximity of homes to caged flocks of birds contribute to the spread or development of new and re-emergent pathogens.
It may not be H5N1 that spreads through the world, but experts agree that the prospect of a pandemic flu is more a question of when, not if.
Still, the British security report acknowledged that climate change is likely to become a huge security challenge, particularly as extreme weather events force mass migrations of people from vulnerable areas to more stable areas, exacerbating existing political problems or creating new violent tensions.
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