by William H. Benson
April 23, 2015
At a TED conference on March 18, in Vancouver, Bill Gates said, “If anything kills over ten million people in the next decades, it is most likely to be a highly infectious virus, rather than war; not missiles, but microbes. We are not ready for the next epidemic.”
Gates pointed out that the Ebola virus killed 10,194 people in three west African countries this past year, but it could have killed far more. Gates said, “we were lucky that the Ebola virus did not spread through the air, and that it was limited to rural areas rather than urban.”
Gates also said that the effort to contain Ebola demonstrated the need for a global comprehensive medical treatment system. “The Ebola epidemic was not a systems failure, but a lack of a system.” He suggested stronger health systems in poor countries, a medical corps organization, a pairing of military and medical personnel, a series of germ games rather than war games, and more vaccine research.
Researchers are just now—a full year after the Ebola epidemic—testing vaccines for Ebola.
A virus is small, about one hundredth the size of the average bacteria. It contains either RNA or DNA, a protein coat, and lipids. It is parasitic in that it lives inside a host, such as a plant, animal, or a bacteria. It possesses a drive to replicate, but if it kills off its host, it too dies.
People have known of certain viruses—smallpox, rabies, poliovirus, and measles—for centuries, but others have merited more attention in recent years, such as swine flu, avian flu, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, Hantavirus, West Nile, HIV, monkeypox, and Norovirus.
Children suffer from chicken pox, mumps, and measles; but more elderly people suffer from shingles and West Nile. The chicken pox virus, or zoster, never leaves the body, but instead it lies dormant, poised to strike a second time as shingles. That virus causes a rash and also severe nerve pain, a symptom that chicken pox fails to manifest. Thus, the zoster virus evolves into another form.
Some viruses—such as herpes simplex virus and Human Papillomavirus—infect hosts through sexual contact, but others are transmitted through contact with body fluids: blood, urine, saliva, and sweat. HIV infects its hosts through both sexual contact and tainted blood. Influenza spreads in the air through sneezes and coughs, or it can lie on a surface up to two days, waiting for someone to touch it.
The tobacco ringworm virus infects both tobacco plants and soybeans, but when the honeybees gather pollen from the infected plants, they too become infected. Researchers now suspect that the former plant virus may have contributed to the bees’ CCD, or colony collapse disorder.
Viruses strike different organs. Hepatitis, A through E, attacks the liver; and polio, West Nile, and viral meningitis attack the nervous system. Smallpox, measles, herpes, shingles, monkey pox, and dengue produce skin lesions, pustules, or rashes. Influenza strikes at the lungs and causes pneumonia.
Rotavirus and Norovirus focuses its attack upon the gastrointestinal tract and causes diarrhea. Hantavirus can either attack the kidneys or the lungs. HIV disables the body’s immune system. Monkeypox causes the lymph nodes to swell, and mumps cause the salivary glands to swell.
Many viruses though cause fever, headache, chills, body pain, nausea, and immense misery.
The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people than any other epidemic in history. Bill Gates said that in 263 days 33,365,533 people died across the world. Pitiless, it often attacked men and women in their prime, between the ages of twenty and forty, an unheard of phenomenon. Most viruses attack children, the seniors, or those in a weakened condition.
This strain of influenza first erupted in Haskell County, Kansas, west of Dodge City, in February of 1918. From there, certain soldiers—Dean Nilson, Ernest Elliot, and others—who were home on leave, carried it back with them to their army base, Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas, where it caused pneumonia in 237 men, and of those, thirty-eight died. It then raced through other army camps.
Because of the World War, transport ships ferried troops across the Atlantic, and on April 10, the first appearance of this strain of influenza appeared in the French army, but then this strain died out both in France and the United States. In John Barry’s 2004 book The Great Influenza, he wrote that this pandemic “came in waves. The first spring wave killed a few, but the second wave would prove lethal.”
Barry wrote that “biology is chaos. It is the product not of logic but of evolution, an inelegant process. It adapts and builds upon what already exists.” Between May and August in 1918, this influenza virus went dormant, but researchers now know that it was evolving into a more lethal killer.
The second wave erupted in August of 1918. Researchers suggest that “the ancestral virus responsible for the spring epidemics in the United States passaged and mutated, and that the process continued in France.” This second strain unleashed quick and ghastly consequences among the world’s armies and civilians. Millions would feel sick, and just hours later, pneumonia would strike them down.
Bill Gates estimated that a similar pandemic today would cost an estimated $3,000,000,000, and millions would lose their lives. “There’s no need to panic,” he said, “but time is not on our side.”