Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Bird Flu

Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Bird Flu

by Mike Davis


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From the acclaimed writer The Nation calls the "master of disaster prose," a terrifying forecast of a new global threat.

"We are talking at least seven million deaths, but maybe more—10 million, 20 million, and the worst case, 100 million."—Shigeru Omi, Regional Director, western pacific office of the World Health Organization, November 2004

Avian influenza is a viral asteroid on a collision course with humanity. In 1918, a pandemic strain of influenza killed at least 40 million people in three months. Now, leading researchers believe, another world catastrophe is imminent.

A virus of astonishing lethality, known as H5N1, has become entrenched in the poultry and wild bird populations of East Asia. It kills two out of every three people it infects. The World Health Organization warns that it is on the verge of mutating into a super-contagious pandemic form that could visit several billion homes within two years.

In this urgent and extraordinarily frightening book, Mike Davis reconstructs the scientific and political history of a viral apocalypse in the making, exposing the central roles of agribusiness and the fast-food industries, abetted by corrupt governments, in creating the ecological conditions for the emergence of this new plague. He also details the scandalous failure of the Bush administration, obsessed with hypothetical "bio-terrorism," to safeguard Americans from the greatest biological threat since HIV/AIDS.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595580115
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 10/01/2005
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 5.64(w) x 7.58(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

MacArthur fellow Mike Davis is the author of several books, including City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Late Victorian Holocausts, Dead Cities, and—with Kelly Mayhew and Jim Miller—Under the Perfect Sun. He lives in San Diego.

Read an Excerpt

The Monster at Our Door The Global Threat of Avian Flu

By Mike Davis New Press

Copyright © 2005 Mike Davis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781595580115

Preface: Pieta
The evil that happened here in the last month was a sign.1
-- The village chief of Ban Srisomboon

In a time of plague, like the influenza pandemic that swept away my mother’s little brother and 40 to 100 million other people in 1918, it is difficult to retain a clear image of individual suffering. Great epidemics, like world wars and famines, massify death into species-level events beyond our emotional comprehension. The afflicted, as a result, die twice: their physical agonies are redoubled by the submergence of their personalities in the black water of megatragedy. As Camus put it, “a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead; a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination.”2 No one mourns a multitude or keens at the graveside of an abstraction. Unlike certain other social animals, we have no collective sorrow instinct or biological solidarity that is automatically aroused by the destruction of our fellow kind. Indeed, at our worst we find a perverse, often delectable sublimity in Black Deaths, tsunamis, massacres, genocides, and collapsing skyscrapers. In order to grieve over a cataclysm, we must first personify it. The Final Solution, for example, has little gut impact until one reads TheDiary of Anne Frank or sees the pitiful artifacts in the Holocaust Museum. Then it is possible to weep.

The threat of avian influenza—a plague-in-the-making that the World Health Organization (WHO) fears could kill as many as 100 million people in the next few years—is perhaps most movingly exemplified by the story of Pranee Thongchan and her daughter Sakuntala. Indeed, the image of the dying eleven-year-old tenderly cradled in the arms of her young mother was the pieta that gave visceral meaning to the writing of this little book, which reports on the failure of our government and others to protect the world from the imminent danger of an almost unfathomably dangerous influenza outbreak. The intimate and heart-moving scale of this mother-daughter tragedy is precisely what will be lost if avian flu, as so many predict, becomes the next great pestilence of globalization, following in the wake of HIV/AIDS.

Ban Srisomboon is a village of 400 households in Thailand’s northern province of Kamphaeng Phet, a pleasant, sleepy region whose decayed temples and palaces attract few tourists but which is renown throughout the country for its famous bananas. Like rural Thais elsewhere, the people of Ban Srisomboon are preoccupied with chickens. They raise free-range poultry for cash income, then invest their earnings in the fighting cocks that are a national obsession. In late August 2004, however, chickens started dying mysteriously throughout the village, much like the rats in Oran in the early scenes of The Plague. Unlike the hapless colons in Camus’s famous novel, however, the farmers of Ban Srisomboon recognized that the dead chickens were a portent of the avian influenza that had been insidiously creeping across Thailand since November 2003.

Given the genetic license-plate number “H5N1” by virologists, this flu subtype had been first recognized in Hong Kong in 1997 when it jumped from waterfowl to humans, killing six of its eighteen victims. A desperate cull of all the poultry in the city contained the first outbreak, but the virus simply went underground, most likely in the “silent reservoir” of domestic ducks. In 2003, it suddenly reappeared on an epic scale throughout China and Southeast Asia. Researchers were horrified to discover that H5N1—like the doomsday bug in Michael Crichton’s old thriller, The Andromeda Strain—was becoming “progressively more pathogenic” both to chickens and humans. In the first three months of 2004, as new human fatalities were reported from Vietnam and Thailand, more than 120 million chickens and ducks were destroyed in a massive international effort to create a firebreak around the outbreak. Most of the slaughtered poultry belonged to small farmers or contract growers who were often wiped out by the losses. The countryside of Southeast Asia, as a result, was full of apprehension and bitterness.

The family heads of Ban Srisomboon thus faced an excruciating dilemma. On one hand, they were aware that the disease was truly dangerous to their children as well as their chickens and that they were legally required to summon the authorities. On the other hand, they also knew that the government would promptly kill all their poultry, including their prized fighting cocks. The official compensation was only 20 baht per bird (about 50 cents), but the cocks were worth up to 10,000 baht—in some cases, they were a family’s principal wealth.3

Bangkok newspapers reported different versions of how the village resolved this contradiction. In one account, the villagers decided to hide the outbreak and hope for the best. In another version, they twice warned the Agriculture Ministry that abnormal numbers of chickens were dying, but officials failed to inspect the village. In any event Sakuntala’s uncle, Somsak Laemphakwan, later told reporters that he dug deep holes to ensure that his dead birds did not spread their infection. Despite this precaution, his niece, who like other village children had daily contact with the birds, soon developed a suspicious stomachache and fever. Somsak took her to a nearby clinic, but the nurse dismissed her illness as a bad cold. Five days later, however, Sakuntala began to vomit blood, and she was rushed to the district hospital in the town of Kamphaeng Phet (population 25,000). When she continued to deteriorate, her aunt, Pranom Thongchan, called Sakuntala’s mother, who was working in a garment factory near Bangkok, and told her to come home quickly.4

Pranee was horrified to discover her daughter in the terminal phase of viral pneumonia: coughing up blood and gasping for breath (pneumonia kills by slow suffocation). Throughout that last night, according to nurses, she cradled her daughter, kissing and caressing her, whispering endearments; such love, one hopes, would have allayed some of the little girl’s terror and suffering. (The accounts were especially poignant to me as they eerily recalled my mother’s recollection—she was eight in 1918—of the death of her toddler brother in the arms of her stepmother.)

The hospital listed Sakuntala’s cause of death as “dengue fever” and she was cremated before anyone could take a tissue sample. At the funeral, Pranee complained of muscle aches and acute exhaustion, and her family took her to the same clinic that had misdiagnosed her daughter’s critical illness as a cold. In a dreadful repeat of the earlier incompetence, Pranee was reassured that she was just suffering from grief and exhaustion. She returned to her factory job, but she soon collapsed and was rushed to a hospital where she died on 20 September, two weeks after her daughter. She was only twenty-six years old.

While public health officials awaited an autopsy report on Pranee, her sister, Pranom, was in medical isolation with similar symptoms. Fortunately, the doctors now suspected bird flu and quickly administered a course of oseltamivir (Tamiflu), a powerful antiviral that, if administered promptly, has proven uniquely effective against the most deadly strains of influenza. While Pranom was recovering, teams of men wearing gas masks and white biosafety suits nervously entered Ban Srisomboon, now a “red zone,” to kill, bag, and bury all the remaining birds. Other crews in rubber boots and rain gear sprayed disinfectant on “everything from pickup trucks full of schoolboys to three-wheeled tractors.” In an atmosphere of near panic, villagers avoided their neighbors but, at the first sign of a cough or sniffles, raced into the district hospital emergency room, terrified that they had the bird plague. Others implored local monks to exorcise the malevolent spirit that, Stephen King–like, had descended upon their peaceful village.

Their fears were not irrational: on 28 September, WHO announced that Pranee had probably contracted her infection directly from Sakuntala, thus marking the first person-to-person transmission of avian flu since the emergence of the current virulent subtype in 1997. Although the WHO and the Thai government tried to downplay the significance of Pranee’s death—“a viral dead end” in the words of one official—influenza researchers knew that the disclosure deserved the headlines and alarm it generated around the world. If the avian virus had acquired enabling genes from a human influenza strain, then Pranee might be only the first of millions of new victims of a plague that in its current incarnation (poultry-to-human transmissions) was killing two-thirds of those it infected.

In this case, the virus was found to be unmodified, suggesting that Pranee had contracted it only because of sustained intimate contact with her daughter’s body fluids. But, as the lead researchers pointed out, “this should not be a rationale for complacency”; “the person-to-person transmission of one of the most lethal human pathogens in the modern world should serve as a reminder of the urgent need to prepare for a future influenza pandemic.”5

The essence of the avian flu threat, as we shall see, is that a mutant influenza of nightmarish virulence—evolved and now entrenched in ecological niches recently created by global agro-capitalism—is searching for the new gene or two that will enable it to travel at pandemic velocity through a densely urbanized and mostly poor humanity. This is a destiny, moreover, that we have largely forced upon influenza. Human-induced environmental shocks—overseas tourism, wetland destruction, a corporate “Livestock Revolution,” and Third World urbanization with the attendant growth of megaslums—are responsible for turning influenza’s extraordinary Darwinian mutability into one of the most dangerous biological forces on our besieged planet. Likewise, our terrifying vulnerability to this and other emergent diseases has been shaped by concentrated urban poverty, the neglect of vaccine development by a pharmaceutical industry that finds infectious diseases “unprofitable,” and the deterioration, even collapse, of public-health infrastructures in some rich as well as poor countries. The evil that visited Ban Srisomboon, in other words, was not some ancient plague awakened from dormancy, if such can exist independent of historical circumstance, but a new form in whose creation we have inadvertently but decisively intervened. And that, as the villagers in Ban Srisomboon avowed, is surely a “sign.”

Copyright © 2005 by Mike Davis
Additional material 2006 by Mike Davis


Excerpted from The Monster at Our Door by Mike Davis Copyright © 2005 by Mike Davis. Excerpted by permission.
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Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Bird Flu 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
plappen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a comprehensive look at just what bird (or avian) flu is all about, and what the world is, or is not, doing about it.Influenzas are divided into three major categories. Types B & C are relatively mild, leading to the common cold, or, at worst, the winter flu. But Type A is the unpredictable, and lethal, strain that is fully entrenched among the bird population of East Asia. It is very easy for the disease to jump from migratory birds, to ducks, to chickens, to swans and egrets, and back again, mutating along the way. Until now, the human deaths have come from direct contact with infected birds. But the time is coming when that last mutation will click into place, causing it to jump from person to person. A worldwide flu pandemic, with a death toll in the hundreds of millions, is, as one researcher put it, "late."What is America doing to prepare for the coming pandemic? Not much. Industrial chicken farms, with millions of chickens crowded into one building, are a wonderful breeding ground for diseases of all sorts, not just bird flu. Remember SARS from a couple of years ago? Among the reasons why it was contained is that the cities where it happened, Toronto and Hong Kong, are modern cities with modern health care systems. Imagine if SARS had shown up somewhere in Africa, with a much less modern health care system.The major drug companies have opposed moves to allow other countries to make cheap copies of flu vaccines, even though there are nowhere near enough doses of vaccines even for first responders, out of concern for their corporate bottom line. The Bush Administration is more interested in spending money preparing for a smallpox or anthrax outbreak, something which has much less chance of ever happening, than in spending it on bird flu, which is coming in the near future.This is a very spooky book, which I guess is the idea. It is written for the layman, and does a fine job at showing how unprepared America is for the next flu pandemic. It is very highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in two days flat! It is very well researched. It gives a chronological account of the outbreaks that have occured from 1997 through 2005. It also compares and contrasts the influenza pandemics of 1918, 1957, and 1976. The book describes how the H5N1 virus jumped the species barrier, and why it is dangerous to humans. According to the author, the avian flu pandemic is behind schedule. Globalization, factory farming, and a failing world health care system make this a perfect storm. Governments need to make a deal with pharmaceutical companies to entice them to make a vaccine. This is a great read. This book will tell you everything about the Bird Flu that goverments and the press have been trying to hide.