The epidemic next time: what the CDC fears most
by Michael H. Brown
More than a year ago I visited the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and what I remember most vividly was standing just outside a sealed laboratory where the most dangerous microbes known to man are stored and examined. It was daunting: there through the glass I could glimpse the pipes filtering air, the "spacesuits," the shelves of test animals.
Inside were viruses that could cause a national emergency.
It was a "level-four" containment area, as dangerous as it gets. Among the viruses under study was ebola, which has been in the news this week because of concerns that a woman who arrived in Toronto from Africa may have contracted it.
Fortunately she didn't have it, but it reminds us of the diseases out there and their savage effects.
Mad-cow. HIV. And the feared viruses like ebola.
"Ebola attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone," wrote Richard Preston. "It is a perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles... blood clots begin to appear... the body turns to mush... the skin bubbles into a sea of white blisters... spontaneous rips appear on the skin, and hemorrhagic bloods pours from the rips... the skin goes soft and pulpy, and can tear off... your mouth bleeds, and you bleed around your teeth... ebola attacks the lining of the eyeball, and the eyeballs may fill up with blood."
It has killed a number of missionaries -- including a nun whose blood was found on the floor, chair, and walls. There is that kind of convulsion and hemorrhage. And it's highly contagious. Were it not for the fact that it kills so swiftly -- preventing a person from widespread contact with others -- it would wipe out entire metropolitan areas.
Yet when I visited CDC I was told that this isn't the disease officials fear the most. Believe it or not, the greatest fear is a new strain of influenza. That can last long enough to spread, and in the era of air travel could be anywhere in the world in less than 72 hours.
"In the winter of 1997-1998 there was a virus, avian influenza, H5N1, which is found in poultry and had never been associated with humans," I was told by Dr. Joseph E. McDade, deputy director at CDC for the infectious disease center. "If that virus ever acquired the ability for rapid transmission from person to person, if that virus, which mutates very fast, had taken off, there was no underlying immunity anywhere in the world because nobody had ever been exposed to the particular virus strain and there was no vaccine available. The potential was enormous. We dodged a bullet. You can't think of a scenario more dangerous."
Indeed, from 1918 to 1920 a strain of flu killed between 20 and 40 million worldwide (including two of the seers from Fatima). Some believe the deadly flu started at Fort Riley, Kansas, after strange weather patterns that brought both cold and heat and dust storms that caused the skies to blacken.
I heard the same concern about flu from Pierre Rollin -- who works in the level-four lab and has been to Africa during ebola outbreaks. It was certainly possible, he said, for the flu to hit a higher stride than even in 1918, and if it comes it may be one of the expected chastisements. Plague has been a part of God's purification since the time of Moses and we're in for purification. At LaSalette in France where the Blessed Virgin appeared in 1846 she allegedly warned about "infectious disease."
I stood for a long while staring up at the lab. So dangerous are the microbes, explained Dr. McDade, that there is negative pressure so air can't seep out. This is where "virus X" may one day find its way. In other sealed labs scientists in full double gear were incubating aviary virus.
Ebola? Mad-cow? Influenza? Or perhaps a new strain of HIV?
"Expect the unexpected," Dr. McDade said.
(This article was adapted from SENT TO EARTH)
see also Virulent strains emerge in Europe as the power of drugs slips
E-mail this site to a friend