The cutting-edge science on front-page newspapers is ringing alarm bells. Avian flu virus picked up by pigs can swap genetic materials with another flu virus already in the pig and become a new, hitherto unknown flu virus for which no person, no animal has preexisting immunity. This kind of virus causes a pandemic because it spreads from human to human.
If you took a peek into history, it turns out that previous influenza pandemics have similar scenarios. The greatest influenza pandemic in 1918 caused more than 20 million deaths of soldiers stationed in France. The last influenza pandemic was in 1968, known as the Hong Kong flu (H3N2). Thousands of deaths and millions were infected worldwide.
The other examples are the Nipah virus and Japanese Encephalitis virus, which find pigs to be good hosts. With JE, the virus circulates in the blood of infected pigs. When infected pigs are bitten by Culex mosquitoes, the virus replicates in the mosquito's gut. The next time the mosquito bites a human, the virus is passed on. The pig doesn't get sick as such. The Nipah virus causes pneumonia symptoms in pigs. In humans, it causes encephalitis, and humans catch it only with direct contact with infected pigs. Symptoms range from mild headache to permanent brain damage, and can be fatal.
It's merely a phenomenon of nature that the pig is the "mixing vessel" for the new germ. But make no mistake, the pig is not the villain, neither is the chicken. It's actually us, and our horrible farm practices, outdated agricultural policy and, most of all, reckless disregard of our ecology and environment. "Hygiene and management can control what eventually happens," says Lam. "Good farming practice will prevent serious outbreaks and infection to humans." Despite knowing that, animal diseases and the possibility of transmission to humans are becoming quite alarming. Of the 35 new emerging diseases in the last 20 years, more than 70 per cent involved animals.
In fact, what we may have done is unwittingly create the perfect launch pad for an influenza pandemic that will likely kill large numbers of people across the globe. Although scientists say it's impossible to predict the odds that the virus will alter its genetic form radically enough to start leaping from human to human, the longer H5N1 is out there killing chickens, the higher the chances are.