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What can prevent the next epidemic?

Having been mostly sick for the last two weeks with some kind of virus, I am reminded that getting one is not fun. It can lay you up and sap your energy in ways you simply forget about. I was on the trajectory of getting better, so I got on an airplane and came to a workshop for journalists on viruses in the lovely island of Grenada with Dr. Robert Gallo, the staff of the Global Virus Network and professors from St. George’s University in Grenada.

People of my era remember hearing stories of both world wars and of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. One of our family friends had lost both of his parents to that flu when he was quite young. It was an epidemic that killed 40 million people worldwide. Then in 1957, when I was in first grade, the Asian flu took hold. It is unclear how many people it killed, but estimates vary between one and four million people. I was only six but remember it well, as I played one of the many hosts to that virus. It did not kill me, but I remember the high fever and the inability to even get out of bed.

In 1968, a virus known as the Hong Kong flu was the next big epidemic, I got sick again, this time so delirious from fever that I thought I was mediating a fight and began to punch my two bed pillows. Estimates for this flu are one to four million people killed.

Although not the flu, the AIDS crises began in the 1980s, and many of my friends died from it. There was so little known about it that in some areas of the U.S., the time between diagnosis and death was only six months. Now the “cocktail” people can live years, and some estimates show that someone properly treated with HIV infection will only lose an average of two years of life. That is quite an accomplishment of medicine, given that HIV infection used to mean a certain death. The last massive AIDS deaths took place in 1995 in the United States before the cocktail. In 2003, under the leadership of George W. Bush, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, was signed into law. It has provided anti-virals to millions of people in Africa and, by helping with tuberculosis (as well as malaria), has mostly saved the rest of the world from new strains of disease that also might make people in the developed world more drug resistant. George W. Bush understood curing and treating viruses.

Because viruses take over cellular machinery to replicate, many people think they are living. Not so, says Dr. Gallo, as they have no metabolism but they can do a lot of damage such as cause flu epidemics and, as tiny as they are (a billion billion viruses can fill a Ping-Pong ball), they can wreak havoc. Although, there has been great progress in making a flu vaccine that works and is easy to get and administer, there are viruses such as HIV that have no workable vaccine.

Now, more viruses also are being identified and causing more damage. One of the most recent is the Chikungunya virus, which in a native language means “that which bends up.” It can present like Dengue, which is known as “the bone crushing” virus, as people who have it say they feel like their bones are being crushed, but unlike Dengue, the symptoms can last for years. It is not making its appearance in Africa, but closer to home, in the Caribbean.  

So, other than most of us living with that remembrance of the flu, what can we do about this? What can prevent the next epidemic?

Jim Pinkerton, my friend from Fox News Channel, has been working on a strategy for cures. He thinks money spent on developing the science for the cures is money well spent. Jim is not wrong, as the loss we experienced in the U.S. from the AIDS virus had a huge epidemic impact as well as a human one and, left unchecked by PEPFAR, could have destabilized a good portion of Africa, making way for more war and more places for terrorists to hide.

Jim Pinkerton is onto something. It makes sense to push for medical research and cures and, in the end, it will cost us all less and might just save us from another worldwide epidemic that kills millions.

Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact [email protected].