MASS DEATH could soon come to a neighbourhood near you, and George Bush's Department of Homeland Security would be helpless to prevent it. The terrorist in this case could be a mutant offspring of influenza A subtype H5N1-the explosively spreading avian virus, or bird flu, that the World Health Organisation (WHO) worries will be the progenitor of a deadly global plague. The most lethal massacre in human history was the 1918-19 influenza pandemic that culled more than 2 percent of humanity (40 to 50 million people) in a single winter.
Although never proven, many researchers believe the pandemic was caused by a bird virus that exchanged genes with a human strain and thus acquired the ability to spread easily from person to person. Humans have little immune protection against such species jumps. The biological reservoir of influenza is the mixed agriculture of southern China where wild and domestic fowl, pigs and humans are brought into intense ecological contact in farms and markets.
Breakneck urbanisation, a soaring demand for poultry and pork, and what Science magazine recently characterised as 'denser concentrations of larger poultry farms without appropriate biological safeguards' create optimum conditions for the rapid evolution of viruses and their promiscuous passage from one species to another.
Influenza, indeed, is like a viral fashion industry-every winter changing styles (glycoprotein coats) to create new strains, but then, perhaps every 30 years, undergoing a revolution (species jump) that unleashes a virulent pandemic. The last flu pandemic killed half a million people in 1968, but scientists interviewed by top science magazines Nature and Science expressed fears that H5N1 might be on the verge of evolving into something more like the 1918-19 monster.
Although so far we have confirmation only that it has been transmitted by direct contact with birds and especially their droppings, the current strain is far more lethal than last year's SARS epidemic that caused so much international havoc.
As a result, a top researcher told Nature, 'Everyone's preparing for the worst case scenario.' WHO investigators have been checking on the terrifying possibility that the first human to human transmission has already occurred in Vietnam.
This winter's moderate flu epidemic, which overwhelmed US emergency rooms and quickly used up supplies of vaccine, vividly demonstrated how ill-prepared even the richest countries are to deal with an imminent pandemic. Current vaccine production lines, which depend upon a limited supply of fertile hen eggs, couldn't meet even a fraction of potential demand. But a true pandemic would probably overwhelm the world long before a vaccine could be developed and produced in large quantities.
The potential accelerators of a new plague are the huge slums of Asia and Africa. Concentrated poverty is one of the most important variables in any model of how a pandemic might grow. These slums-bustees in Calcutta, chawls in Mumbai, kampungs in Jakarta, katchi abadis in Karachi-are, from an epidemiological standpoint, landscapes saturated in gasoline, only awaiting an errant spark like H5N1. (Twenty million or more of the deaths in 1918-19 were in poor, congested and recently famished parts of British India.)
Last fall the United Nations Human Settlements Programme published a historic report, The Challenge of Slums, warning that slums across the world were growing in their own hothouse viral fashion.
One billion people, mainly uprooted rural migrants, are currently warehoused in shantytowns and squatters' camps, and the number will double in the next generation. The authors of the report broke with traditional UN circumspection to squarely blame the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its neo-colonial 'conditionalities' for spawning slums by decimating public sector spending and local manufacturing throughout the developing world.
During the debt crisis of the 1980s the IMF, backed by the Reagan and Bush administrations, forced most of the Third World to downsize public employment, devalue currencies and open their domestic markets to imports. The results everywhere were an explosion of urban poverty and sharp fall-offs in public services.
A principal target of IMF austerity programmes has been urban public health. In Congo and Ghana, for instance, 'structural adjustment' meant the laying off of tens of thousands of public health workers and doctors. Similarly in Kenya and Zimbabwe implementation of IMF demands led to huge fall-offs in healthcare coverage and spending.
In South Asia, likewise, investment in public health has lagged far behind the growth of slums. The five largest cities of the region alone have a total slum population of more than 20 million, and standards of sanitation are symbolised by ratios of one toilet seat per 2,000 residents in the poorest parts of Mumbai and Dhaka.
Thanks to global neo-liberalism, then, disease surveillance and epidemic response are weakest precisely where they are most important: in the mega-slums of Asia and Africa. That's where the brushfire of H5N1 could turn into a deadly biological firestorm.
In that event it would consume more than just the poor. Once a new pandemic had acquired the momentum of mass mortality in Asia it would inexorably spread to North America and Europe. It would easily climb the walls of gated communities and other fortresses of privilege.
Here, of course, is the rub. In the past the rich countries, with few exceptions, have shown callous indifference to the monstrous human toll of AIDS in Africa or of the two million poor children annually claimed by malaria. H5N1 may be our unexpected reward.
Mike Davis is author, most recently, of the kids' adventure story Lord of the Lost Mammoths (Perceval Press, 2003) and co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See (New Press, 2003).
Pigs and profits
AS MIKE Davis argues, a key factor behind new diseases like the current bird flu threat is the enormously accelerated concentration of animal production without appropriate biological safeguards. Driving this process in food production are a handful of giant global corporations.
Among them are US corporations such as Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, Smithfield and ADM, and Japanese firms like Nippon Meats and Mitsubishi. Cargill and ADM, for example, now control 80 percent of all world trade in grain. Much of that grain goes to animal production lines. ADM is a key player in huge poultry production units in China. Smithfield, the world's largest pig processor, is a key firm involved in China's Guangdong province. Cargill and Nippon Meats of Japan have major poultry operations in Thailand.
These firms also dominate animal production in the West. Two thirds of poultry production in Britain already takes place in flocks of over 100,000 birds. In such huge units animals are more prone to disease which can rapidly spread and evolve into more deadly forms. Last week the US state of Delaware saw the outbreak of a new form of avian flu (different to the one which has erupted in the Far East). Hundreds of thousands of birds are to be slaughtered.
To try and guard against such diseases, and also to boost rapid growth, the corporations pump animals full of antibiotics, including ones used to treat human diseases. The risks of this are enormous, if antibiotic resistance develops and spreads to humans.
Already diseases like TB are making a resurgence in the West, including strains increasingly resistant to most antibiotics. Doctors are increasingly worried about other infections which are resistant to most antibiotics. Corporate domination of food and agriculture threatens us all.