Great. H5N1 bird flu has jumped to pigs. Just in case this gives you a So What? reaction, we are not talking here about the Swine Flu A(H1N1), which was all the rage in 2009, with huge vaccination and public health measures until it turned out to be quite minor, of interest now only to conspiracy theorists who think that it may have been dreamed up by Big Pharma as a measure to boost profits from sale of Tamiflu and vaccines. (My opinion is that the response of the public health authorities was fairly correct, and that we should all count ourselves lucky that it turned out to be so mild).
No, we are talking about H1N1 Avian flu, which kills about 60% of the humans it infects. Luckily, it has great difficulty in spreading from birds to humans, and from human to human. You have to be pretty close to an infected bird or human to catch it. The epidemic of H5N1 in birds has been tailing off in Indonesia since 2007, but it is present in 7% of the pigs. Unfortunately they are mainly symptomless carriers, so we don't even get to identify which ones are infected without a test.Fortunately, it does not yet seem to pass from pig to pig.
So why is it significant that it has found its way into pigs? Pigs are a reservoir for the virus, and in pigs it can shuffle its genes around until it comes up with a winning combination that enables it to spread from pigs to human and between humans. Pigs are closer to humans than birds, physiologically. So far it has not done the transmission trick, and it has been in Indonesian pigs since 2005. It has so far developed the capability of binding to protein in the noses of both pigs and humans.
Maybe we will get lucky again, and by the time the H5N1virus overcomes its transmission problem, it may hopefully have lost the virulence that gave it its 60% mortality rates.
If not, if it gives us another 1918 epidemic, at least we will have someone to blame - the free market fundamentalists.
Well, take a look here, at this WHO table of human deaths from H5N1.
Compare Indonesia and Vietnam.
Vietnam had a bad problem - the worst in the world - until 2005. Then they cracked it, and Indonesia took over as the main country of infection. The Vietnamese cases since 2005 were mainly from contamination from Indonesia.
How did Vietnam succeed in clearing the infection? Here's How.
After nearly two years of using mainly culling to control the virus, the Communist government last year adopted a combination of mass poultry vaccination, disinfecting, culling, information campaigns and bans on live poultry in cities.
Any rational world health organisation would have tried to replicate Vietnam's success in Indonesia. They did not.
Hans Troedsson, the UN's World Health Organisation representative in Vietnam, said the plan was "technically sound" but could not be copied or used as a blueprint by every country.
The cause of this irrationality, in my opinion, boils down to ideology. Vietnam's solution was deemed socialistic by some influential person within the WHO. Indonesia's sacred free market must not be contaminated with socialism. Instead, it remained contaminated with H5N1, which has passed into the pigs, and may pass thence to us, which may or may not have important consequences for human population numbers.
I am being very careful to remain scientific and objective here.
There is a remedy. Control the Indonesian outbreak with the Vietnamese model. Test all Indonesian pigs for H5N1 and slaughter out all the carriers. It's going to be expensive, far more expensive than applying the Vietnamese solution to the birds, but hey - that's the free market!