by Ralph Nader
June 24, 2003
Unintentionally, the animal kingdom is striking back at homo sapiens who are not yet developing a "wise" response. Recently the Washington Post listed some of them in an article headlined "Why So Many New Infections are Coming from Animals."
AIDS, SARS, West Nile virus, hantavirus, Influenza, Lyme disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob (mad cow disease), and monkeypox are some of those diseases that animals transmit to humans.
All this is nothing new. You'll recall that the Black Death, which took millions of lives during the 14th century in Asia and Europe, came from infected rats. Smallpox, another slayer of tens of millions over the centuries, is believed to have been passed to humans from camels. And the massive toll of about 50 million lives in 1918-1919 originated in Chinese ducks and migrated to Chinese pigs before moving to the global human pandemic.
There was a period in the mid-twentieth century when a lull occurred, juxtaposed with the advent of modern antibiotics, which led to a complacency. Graduate students at the Harvard School of Public Health were advised not to go into the field of infectious diseases because antibiotics were rapidly eradicating them. Unfortunately the good professors did not adequately recognize the mutational capability of bacteria and viruses.
The HIV virus struck in the United States in the early Eighties followed by a number of new contagious entrants. Experts tend to concur that animals are more rapidly transmitting parasites, viruses and bacteria than in previous decades. The reasons are more travel around the world, more trafficking in exotic pets, more disruption of habitats, climate changes spreading these hosts over newer geographic areas and industrial agriculture feeding animal remains to animals, to mention a few.
To say that infectious disease specialists (and there are not enough of them) are worried is to engage in understatement. The Post quotes Dr. Robert G. Webster, a leading virologist at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis: "There are probably hundreds, if not thousands - maybe even millions - of viruses out there. We don't even know they're there until we disturb them. SARS is probably just a gentle breeze of what one of these big ones is going to do someday."
"Gentle breeze?" Dr. Webster was referring to a fatality count that is still under 1000 worldwide from SARS. But look at the economic toll. It has cost China at least $30 billion in lost production (worker absences), lost export sales and lost tourism. It has dampened the economies of East Asia and Toronto, Canada.
Just last week, Kodak said that the SARS epidemic in Asia has damaged its sales in China. Even the New York Times said that its second-quarter earnings would come in below Wall Street's expectations, citing the SARS virus and its impact on hotel and travel advertising among the leading explanations.
Modern-day economies increasingly are composed of "discretionary expenditures" that can be stopped because of anxiety, fear or panic. People have to buy food, clothing, shelter, for example; they don't have to be tourists or shop for modest luxuries or cater to their whims in the marketplace. This layer of instability adds another consequence to the actual sickness, anguish and expense of these zoonotic diseases.
Get used to that phrase "zoonotic diseases," or sicknesses transmitted from animals like Influenza, HIV, SARS and monkeypox. George W. Bush also better get used to speaking out about zoonotic weapons of mass destruction. He has said and done very little about preparing the nation for these rapidly striking assaults by microscopic, lethal organisms.
President Bush needs to sit by himself and engage in some serious introspection about his insane expenditures and tax-cutting-for-the-wealthy priorities. The entire annual budget that nations have given to the World Health Organization amounts to what one, strategically outdated B-2 bomber costs the Pentagon at a discounted price - just over $1 billion dollars.
The Centers for Disease Control - our country's front line to alert, arouse and respond to existing and fast looming zoonotic diseases - need more resources, more training of operational scientists and epidemiologists. The National Institutes of Health have been receiving more money for its previously languishing infectious disease research programs, but thousands of new infectious disease specialists across the entire continuum of challenges need to be trained.
Several billions of dollars a month are being spent to keep over 150,000 American troops in Iraq where no use of Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" or credible threats to the U.S. have either occurred or been found.
Come home Mr. Bush and get up to speed on the certain destroyers of American lives that can erupt into huge losses of life and a devastated economy. It's your responsibility and you will be held to it.
Ralph Nader is Americaís leading consumer advocate. He is the founder of numerous public interest groups including Public Citizen, and has twice run for President as a Green Party candidate. His latest book is Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (St. Martinís Press, 2002)