Jeremy Laurance: We should feel lucky to be so well protected from disease

Medical Life

I was walking the Lycian Way on Turkey's Mediterranean coast last week – turquoise sea on one side, towering cliffs on the other and a merciless sun above – as the World Health Organisation declared the first flu pandemic in 40 years. On Thursday when the news came through, we were following the route of the Roman aqueduct at Patara, an engineering marvel that probably saved more lives in the ancient world than all the medical drugs invented since have in the modern one.

But what was the human cost of building the 12m-high structure? Merely walking along it, in the 35-degree heat, was exhausting – for the slaves who constructed it 2000 years ago, it would have been torture.

As privileged travellers in a foreign land, it was a reminder of our good fortune to be living now, in the manner and the place that we do, protected (mostly) from disease and hardship. I was reading Colin Thubron's 'Shadow of the Silk Route', an account of his extraordinary journey from central China to Turkey, in which he observes that the traveller's greatest fear is of dying not of sickness but of heartlessness – ignored, neglected, regarded as disposable.

Returning to the UK, I was struck by the reassuring responses to the pandemic being made by scientists, who only a few weeks ago were warning of the potential threat to global health. "Pandemic" refers only to the capacity of the swine flu virus to spread, not to its severity, they pointed out. The disease caused by it is mild (so far) and there is no cause for alarm, was the prevailing message.

Well, yes and no. Even mild flu kills, as we have now seen in Scotland. If more people are infected then more will die. Government estimates are that 25 to 35 per cent of the population could succumb to the virus, compared with between five and 15 per cent from seasonal flu. That implies anything from twice to seven times as many people infected as in a normal flu year – and a proportionate increase in deaths.

Things could get worse, of course, if the virus mutates to become more severe, as many scientists have warned. But let us stick with the optimistic scenario and suppose it remains mild, at least among the well nourished, well protected populations of the West.

If the virus gets a foothold in the developing world, the scenario could be very different, even without a mutation to make it more dangerous. And that could pose a difficult moral dilemma for western countries, with their vast stores of antiviral drugs and soon-to-be-delivered pandemic vaccines.

If the death toll starts to mount in poorer countries while remaining low in richer ones, will we sacrifice our carefully laid plans for our own protection and begin shipping anti-viral drugs and vaccines to those who need them more? I wonder. Heartlessness could end up killing more than sickness in this pandemic.



Meat production is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gases, compared with transport's 13 per cent. Yet how much do we hear about vegetarianism, as a response to global warming? Congrats, Sir Paul McCartney, for trying to shift the debate.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

    Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

    £55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

    BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

    £450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

    SEN Learning Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

    £55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz