Jesus Christ warned of coming worldwide disease pandemics. Are they now near our doorstep? You need to know.
Swine flu has come and gone…or has it? Another international outbreak of influenza rattled the world in recent months. Multiple deaths occurred in multiple countries–but it appears the worst is over and we can return to our normal lives and put this worry behind us.
Or should we?
Before we move on let’s take another look at the prospect for A Modern Menace: Infectious Diseases on this edition of Beyond Today
Have you ever had the flu? Sure you have. Just like most of the population. The common influenza virus we contract usually passes through us in a few days but while it is with us we are laid low and can’t do much. Our bodies are weakened and pained and all we can do is hang on, take our medicine and wish for better days.
That said, about 36,000 people die each year in America from the flu. Not a lot compared to the total population, but enough to cause us to go out and get our annual flu shot to give us the immunity from last year’s flu.
Did you catch that?
I said last year’s flu. You see most flu vaccine is based on an already known strain. It takes up to six months after scientists indentify any new type of flu virus to create a vaccine to fight it. So the flu shot you get each year is based on “old news”.
The problem with today’s new strains of viral infection is the rapidly changing nature of the virus as it picks up properties from various animals and then makes the jump to humans.
Which leads us to the latest scare that has passed through the nations–the swine flu of 2009.
This past April, when the first cases of H1N1 swine flu were detected in Mexico and the United States, health officials around the world went on high alert.
Surveillance measures were put in place. Pharmaceutical companies stepped up production of antiviral drugs. In cities with confirmed cases, schools were closed. Large public gatherings, such as sporting events and concerts, were cancelled. Malls, restaurants and other public places were empty. The scenes were very similar to what happened during the SARS and avian flu outbreaks that unfolded in Asia earlier this decade.
Aided by modern transportation, the virus quickly spread to 40 countries and five continents. By mid-May officials reported almost 9,000 cases of swine flu and at least 75 deaths. At that point, the World Health Organization (WHO) still wasn’t ready to declare the never-before-seen virus a pandemic—a global disease outbreak—but WHO director-general Margaret Chan warned that it had “pandemic potential.”
What the final outcome will be remains to be seen. With the arrival of summer in the northern hemisphere—and warm temperatures that flu bugs don’t like—the spread appears to have slowed considerably. Others have noted that while there have been a large number of infections, this strain has been milder than originally feared and has been responsible for a relatively small number of fatalities.
Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia warns, “that may only be the lull before the storm. His concern is what will happen this fall when traditional flu season begins. “What has been seen with previous outbreaks is flu goes away in the summer,” he noted. “But during the winter flu spreads better, so the virus could go away and come back.”
Another expert says, “I believe we are not out of the woods yet,” , “I am concerned this virus is going to be with us for a while. It could change, become more virulent, have an increased secondary transmission rate . . . in the future.”
Christ’s Signs of the End of the Age
These reasoned opinions should give us reason to remember Christ’s warning that the close of the human age would see the rise of disease pandemic on a global scale. We have been covering the signs Christ gave in His Olivet Prophecy concerning His coming and the end of the age. (Matthew 24:3And as he sat on the mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the world?×)
After He described widespread spiritual deception concerning His name and His message, nations warring against each other and world famine, he came to the sign of pestilence in verse 7.
These four signs parallel the four seals of Revelation 6, sometimes called the Four Horsemen of the Apocaplypse. In Revelation 6 verse 8 we read about the ride of the Pale Horse of Pestilence…” So I looked, and behold a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and the beasts of the earth.”
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says this about the color of the fourth horse: “‘Pale’ (chloros) denotes a yellowish green, the light green of a plant, or the paleness of a sick person in contrast to a healthy appearance.” Put bluntly, this horse is the color of death.
The seals have a cumulative effect. False religion causes instability within relationships leading to war. Famine follows war, and when malnourishment occurs and social systems break down, human beings are more susceptible to disease. These seals depict the ferocity of problems unleashed on the world in the lead-up to “the Day of the Lord.”
How close are we to these events becoming our daily headlines? Closer than we might want to think. Christ also said people would not want to be distracted by the potential for such horrific scenes. They would not want their routine comfortable lives to be interrupted by the thought it could all come apart. How about you? Are you this way?
Let’s consider the reality of disease in today’s world
Deadly pathogens emerging or reemerging
The swine flu isn’t the only disease problem health officials are concerned about right now. The World Health Organization is monitoring about 40 emerging infectious diseases which have only been around two or three decades at the most.
The list includes among others, AIDS, Ebola, Mad Cow Disease, West Nile Virus, Lyme Disease. These are pathogens that either have mutated or genetically recombined to become new strains or novel microbes, or may have existed for millennia but weren’t discovered until recent years.
According to the World Health Organization, at least one new infectious disease has emerged each year since 1980, many of which evade traditional therapies and have no vaccine or cure. “There are far more virulent, very difficult-to-treat infectious diseases today than there were 20 or 30 years ago”.
At the same time, old infectious diseases once believed to be controlled, such as tuberculosis, Staphylococcus, cholera, malaria, hepatitis, influenza and diphtheria, are reemerging as deadly new, often drug-resistant strains, or they are springing up in new regions of the world.
With so many deadly pathogens coming on the scene infectious diseases are once again the leading cause of death in the world—something that hasn’t been the case since the pre-antibiotic era of the early 1900s. Of the estimated 57 million deaths that occur annually in the world, experts estimate that 15 million of them are directly caused by infectious diseases. Millions more deaths are due to secondary effects of infections.
Scientists have identified close to 200 bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal pathogens that are linked with emerging and reemerging infections in humans. There could be another 1,000 “out there, they just haven’t been introduced yet into the population.
At least 75 percent of these pathogens are zoonoses—meaning they are transmitted between animals and people—which makes these diseases even more problematic. Transmission can occur through direct contact with an infected animal’s blood, saliva, urine or feces, or via an intermediate vector—typically an insect or rodent—which gets the pathogen from an infected animal reservoir and then passes it to people.
“Zoonotic diseases cannot usually be eradicated due to the fact that it is not possible to eliminate all of the animal reservoirs that might be carrying the zoonosis
“Even if you developed a vaccine and a cure for a particular zoonotic disease and it was somehow possible to simultaneously treat every person in the world that had it, there are still animals that can transmit that disease back to humans and continue the spread of that pathogen.”
There are a lot of factors behind these pandemics. Many believe mankind is actually creating its own disease problems, albeit unintentionally.
Vaccine expert Thomas Monath says, “In almost every case humans are the most important single factor in the surge of new diseases, whether it’s feeding cow tissue to cattle to cause Mad Cow Disease, people eating exotic animals in the case of Ebola, or air travel spreading Dengue around the world,”.
We are not simply victims of emerging infection. We are making changes in our environment or lifestyles to cause the emergence or spread of disease. Most of the change that has occurred involves several key areas. Let’s look at a few
Agricultural practices and consumption of exotic animals
One of the primary ways new diseases emerge is through what biologists call “genetic recombination.” This can happen when two or more animal species come in contact with each other and exchange the viruses that each carries.
“Two different viruses may infect the same cell. Then the genomes get jumbled, and a totally novel virus emerges—which contains genetic material from both parental strains,”.
One way this is happening more and more is through a farming method called “polyculture,” which is becoming an increasingly common practice in Asia.
Ducks or chickens are kept in cages hung above pigs, which are housed in pens directly above fishponds, where other types of fowl may also swim and eliminate their own wastes
Farmers utilize polyculture to save money on pig feed and increase yields of fish. The pigs feed on the duck droppings, and the pig manure fertilizes the fishponds. “The problem is, it puts ducks and other waterfowl, which are major reservoirs of influenza viruses—although it doesn’t affect them—in direct contact with pigs, which may also be harboring influenza viruses.
A pig that eats duck droppings takes in any viruses that duck may have, which may include both avian and human flu viruses. Those combine with the pig’s influenza viruses, and then they’ll all be mixed up inside the pig’s stomach.
(Are you sick about now?)
That is how the H1N1 influenza virus—which is a mixture of avian, human and pig flu viruses—came to be. One of the reasons scientists are so concerned about the current swine flu outbreak, is that it could recombine with a more virulent strain before returning to the northern hemisphere this fall.
“If a human flu virus, which is easily transmissible to humans, combines with a virulent and novel duck or swine flu, that is when you have problems,” one expert says.
Eating Exotic Animals
Recombination can also occur when humans eat non-domesticated exotic animals. In China, exotic animals like civet cats, coral snakes, tree shrews, flying squirrels, badgers, martens and pangolins are considered delicacies. In Africa, monkeys, apes, aardvarks and rats are all popular meat choices. Guinea pigs, capybaras and armadillos are commonly eaten in Central and South America.
When people consume these meats, any viruses the animal may have been carrying can combine with viruses the person may have. The result may be a new pathogen that infects human beings.
The bottom line is “the practice of consuming wild species opens the door for a much wider variety of pathogens—those of wild animals—to come in contact with humans and develop transmissibility.”
Rapid international travel allows quick spread
Since the third quarter of the 20th century, individuals have been able to travel huge distances in a matter of hours—well within the incubation period of many infectious diseases. Today anyone can get on plane and get to the other side of the world in a matter of 24 to 36 hours.
The speed of travel enables an American to go on safari in Kenya, pick up the Ebola virus, fly back home to New York, pass unnoticed through immigration and customs checks, and then spend the next few days back at work before suddenly getting sick. During the incubation period—the time between getting infected and developing clinical signs of disease—this person may expose hundreds of people to the virus.
One expert warns, “People can be spreading disease and not even know they are ill,”
This is different to past days when people traveled by ship. It may have taken several weeks to travel from one continent to another. If someone had picked up a virus before getting on the ship, he would have developed that disease while still on board. Upon arrival, it would have been obvious to port authorities which passengers were sick and needed to be quarantined.
As illustrated by the recent rapid spread of the H1N1 swine flu virus, modern travel can allow deadly pathogens to quickly outrace our best preventative measures.
Poverty and disease inextricably linked
Not surprisingly, the poorest nations usually have the worst problems with infectious diseases. Sadly, poverty levels appear to be on the increase for much of the world. According to a 2008 United Nations report, more than 80 countries have lower per capita income today than at the beginning of the 1990s.
“As poverty levels climb, so does the incidence of disease,” says Dr. Anderson. The poor are often malnourished, lack understanding of proper hygiene, have no access to medical care and live in densely populated slums—perfect conditions for the transmission of diseases.
One of the most desperate regions of the world is Sub-Saharan Africa. A 2004 World Bank report found that close to half the population in this region lives in poverty, and this percentage is projected to increase in the years ahead.
But, warns Dr. Anderson, “This is not just a concern for Africa.” Just as diseases do not stay in the poorer parts of a town, they do not confine themselves to poorer nations. “Many of the diseases that Western nations are contending with today, got their start in the developing world,” he adds. Sooner or later, there’s a visitor to a disease-infested area or someone from that area travels to another region, and then transports the pathogen to a new part of the world.
Human morality and disease
The 1960s brought dramatic changes in human morality, particularly in terms of sexual behavior. “Whereas having multiple or concurrent sexual partners was unacceptable in the early 1900s, by the latter half of the 20th century it had become the norm in many societies.
Not only had “casual sex” among heterosexuals become acceptable, men having sex with other men became more commonplace. At the same time, intravenous drug use became rampant, with drug users often sharing injection paraphernalia with other injectors.
It all fueled the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, genital herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases—all of which are transmitted via the transference of body fluids.
Overuse of antibiotics creates deadly superbugs
Widespread antibiotic use—often when antibiotics weren’t called for—has created new antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “Patients will often insist they need an antibiotic when they have a cold or the flu, and sometimes doctors will give in to these demands. The problem is that colds and flu are caused by viruses, which are not treatable with antibiotics.
According to the Center for Disease Control, up to 40 percent of antibiotics prescribed in doctor’s offices are for viral infections. This is not always due, however, to patients demanding they get an antibiotic. Sometimes physicians prescribe antibiotics when they can’t make a definite diagnosis, or “just in case” bacteria are present.
Adding to the problem, North American livestock producers have been unnecessarily feeding antibiotics to their animals to try to promote growth and as a preventative disease control measure. This has turned the livestock into a reservoir of drug-resistant germs. When humans eat undercooked, contaminated meat, they can become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Today there are drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, malaria, Streptococci, and Salmonella—to name a few “superbugs” that have emerged in recent years. Because they have the antibiotic-resistant gene in them, they are considered to be genetically new organisms. “Some infections are now so resistant to the drugs we have available that they are virtually untreatable,”.