11/20/2005

Flu Me Twice, Shame on Me

Is It Godzilla? No, it's a chicken. But wait, wasn't there a giant chicken in 'Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster'? Anyway, this is Mike Davis' new book.

Flu Me Twice, Shame on Me

Could the current avian flu really be as bad as the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 million? And what can be done locally to prepare for it? Master of disaster Mike Davis offers some stinging critique of current policy, and a glimmer of hope.

By Bill Forman

Mike Davis has a way with disasters, natural and otherwise. His book City of Quartz, published two years before the Rodney King verdict, proved eerily prophetic in its analysis of the historical, cultural and systemic conditions that would soon set Los Angeles ablaze. Ironically, the book had begun life as Davis' doctoral thesis but was turned down by UCLA's history department. Undaunted, Davis has gone on to become one of America's most incisive social historians, earning a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellowship and consistently training his sites on issues—urban planning, immigration policies, disaster management—that end up making the headlines weeks, months and years later.

Now, with avian bird flu in the news literally every day, it should come as no surprise that Davis, now a history professor at UC-Irvine, is weighing in on the topic of the moment with his cautionary tome The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (New Press; 192 pages; $21.95 cloth). Metro talked to Davis about his new book and the politics of profit and fear.

METRO: Some scientists are talking about the current avian flu threat by referencing the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed as many as 50 million people, but was pretty much forgotten by the public until recently. How do you think a new global outbreak would compare to that one?

Mike Davis: Well, that, of course, is the million-dollar question, and the answer is no one knows. But what we do know—and particularly after this very dangerous but breathtaking experiment that was done in August, where, after 10 years of arduous research, they completely mapped the genome of the 1918 influenza and actually turned around in the laboratory and made the influenza—we now know that there are far more similarities than we even suspected before. We now know that the 1918 influenza was a purely avian flu that seems to have mutated and thereby acquired its extraordinary transmissibility. We also now have a much better idea of why it was so virulent. This has baffled people, because even when two-thirds of the genome was mapped, it was still unclear why it was so virulent. Now it's clear that it's actually a collaboration or synergy between two different proteins. Many of its same genetic features are shared by H5N1, so there's an uncanny similarity here. We of course don't know anything about what happened before the emergence of H1N1, the 1918 flu, how long it had basically incubated in birds or other populations. But certainly the results of these experiments in August have only increased the likelihood that there might be a similarity in its virulence.

What other factors might contribute to the potential severity of the outbreak?

The other side of the equation is the environment in which the virus would operate. And actually the current world in many ways has features analogous or comparable to what favored the disease in 1918: huge concentrations of soldiers, squalid conditions on the western front; all these very same conditions exist in slums around the world, and on an even larger scale. In 1918, there were firebreaks that slowed or interrupted the transmission of the flu, that favored less virulent strains. This time around, so many of the conditions would actually favor the maintenance of virulence from an evolutionary perspective—above all, the ability to jump quickly from person to person, and even if you kill your host you immediately find another host. In other words, the human fuel for a pandemic is much larger and densely packed and conveniently linked by air transit than would have been the case in 1918.

Metroactive Books | 'The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu'

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