Just how big a threat will this flu outbreak be?

Thanks, ironically, to bird flu, we are well prepared, says Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

At first sight, it seems strange that the Government should rank influenza as the biggest threat facing the country. After all, flu is a familiar foe. It turns up every winter. And though it does kill some people – very old, very young, or already infirm – the worst that most of us needs to fear is a few unpleasant days in bed.

In an age which has defeated smallpox, and is even steadily beating back cancer, it would not seem to present much of a problem. Wealthier and healthier than ever, we have come to assume that we left the threat of devastating plagues behind way back in history. In comparison with the much-publicised terrorist threat, it seems small beer indeed.

And yet, ministers are right. The danger of a pandemic – which they reckon could kill 750,000 people in Britain alone – is all too real, for every so often, the disease goes though an evolutionary leap. Normally an existing flu virus undergoes a slight mutation, which enables it to infect some people who have built up immunity from previous bouts of the disease. But some three or four times a century, a completely new one arrives, apparently from nowhere. No one has any immunity against it so – if it is vicious enough, and once it has learned to spread from person to person – it is free to commit mass slaughter.

That is what happened in 1918-19, when a new strain of flu tore through the war-weary world, carrying off 50 million people, including 250,000 Britons. More died from it in their beds than perished on all the battlefields of the murderous Great War itself. And, like all the nastiest pandemic viruses, it targeted the young and healthy, rather than the old and frail, treacherously provoking robust immune systems to overreact so that they kill their owners rather than the virus.

Since then, there have been two much milder pandemics, in 1957 and 1968. Experts agree that another is long overdue, and have been warning that we are unlikely to get off lightly a third time in a row. But until yesterday, they were concentrating on the avian flu that has spread out of Asia to infect birds around the world. H5N1,, is truly scary; 250 people have been killed by it, more than half those known to have been infected. But it has not yet become infectious between people. Scientist worried that it might do so by infecting a pig already harbouring a different, human flu virus, since the animals are susceptible to both: the two could then mix their DNA, creating a deadly new strain that could pass from person to person.

But even at the height of concern about H5N1 four years ago, some experts were warning that the new pandemic might emerge from elsewhere. And this could be what has just happened. The latest virus, A/H1N1, that is rapidly spreading through North America is new and contains a mixture of bird, pig and human strains. Early reports suggest that it takes most of its victims among healthy 25 to 45 year olds.

The World Health Organisation says it has "pandemic potential", but nobody yet knows whether it will indeed sweep through the world and, if it does, how deadly it will be. The bad news is that it is related to the H1N1 strain that caused the 1918-19 plague. But there is good news in that too, for the remnants of that virus hung around into the 1950s, which may give the over 50s some protection.

If it does decide to spread, it will do so quickly. In 1918-19, flu chugged across the world at the speed of steam, taking five or six months to become universal. Now, like a jet plane, flu can circle the world in little more than a day. And once out, as it is now, nothing can stop a determined virus. Checking airports for infected passengers, as Japan is doing, is a waste of time: victims are infectious for several days before they show any symptoms.

But again, there is ground for hope. Flu, experts say, normally tends not to spread in the summer; it prefers autumn and winter weather, passing between children as they return to school. Partly because of a vigorous campaign by this newspaper over bird flu, ministers tardily decided to follow other developed countries by amassing big stocks of Tamiflu and Relenza, two drugs that seem to work against the new strain.

And even if it does spread, we might, conceivably, get lucky for a third time, should it turn out to be a mild strain; because two pandemic viruses never seem to rage at the same time, it might keep H5N1 at bay.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

    £40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

    Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

    £17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)