Cooperation key for health |

Cooperation key for health

Alan Braunholtz

With Christmas comes the flu season.

If a friend drops out of your life for a week or so, suspect the flu and thank your fore thought for getting a flu shot. The flu, while utterly miserable, can provide a helpful perspective on health. Anyone suffering from flu will have an increased appreciation for good health.

Fortunat-ely, flu usually goes away and you get your health back with a new resolution to look after it and enjoy it for as long as possible. While flu sufferers can unjustly whine about “useless” flu shots with some sympathy, our health is our business.

Look after what you can control and be wary of any relaxing of government health regulations, especially if you live in a poor neighborhood. The current proposal to relax controls for the neurotoxin mercury smells more of the coal lobby and power industry’s money and influence than the citizens’ health.

Flu shots are taken with little thought to the planning and research behind them. Flus tend to start in Asia, especially China. The proximity of humans, birds and pigs provides a good breeding ground for viruses to develop and make the species leap. It takes about nine months to develop and produce a vaccine, so sometime in spring someone is trolling around China identifying the flu strains most likely to make their way here in time for Christmas. A lot more than we think is made in China.

This year’s shot provides protection against three types of flu, and this winter there are three prevalent flus being sneezed, sprayed and wiped around. Unfortunately, the vaccine covers only two, so luck and hygiene come into play. Wash your hands a lot and always before eating.

Here it is fashionable for reasons of arrogant superiority to look down our noses at global organizations trying to work for the good of all humankind. The World Health Organization’s ability to stop the spread of SARs, little more than a virulent version of the common cold corona virus, is an amazing example of what truly multilateral cooperation can do.

Our knowledge of diseases and epidemiology is impressive. It took only a few weeks to identify the virus and then take actions to prevent a global epidemic. Scientists the world over cooperated to identify and isolate the SARs virus.

After the anthrax scares following 9/11, the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act came into being. This act placed 82 agents on a control list with extensive handling and recording rules. The field definitely needed tighter rules, as blase scientists were in the habit of transporting exotic strains to investigate on their person as they flew.

Like many acts arising from the ashes of 9/11, this one gave a lot of power and discretion to law enforcement. Inconsistent rules, a slow bureaucracy vetting and approving which scientists can do what and teething problems of quickly enforcing stringent rules on previously unregulated scientists are creating worrying times for the scientists involved.

Some feel the rules are so confusing that full compliance is impossible, giving the government the power to shut down any research that displeases it. For example, one rule states that all new cultures must be destroyed within seven days. Another says permission is needed before destroying any cultures and this process takes more than seven days.

The FBI is prosecuting Texas Tech’s head of infectious diseases, Thomas Butler, for the crime of lying about 30 vials of bubonic plague lost from his lab. He initially reported this loss to the FBI and then after interrogation changed his story, saying he destroyed them. He claims the FBI encouraged him to say this to reassure the public.

Thomas Butler is not a terrorist. He’s a scientist who has devoted his life to fighting the plague after watching a boy die from it in Vietnam in 1968. He now faces more than 100 years in jail for various charges related to his work, including tax and grant irregularities.

Faced with this awesome display of government power, fewer scientists are willing to risk Thomas Butler’s fate and rather than try to comply, they feel it’s safer to get out of the field. Even those willing to stay in are destroying strains of agents, since they can’t get the approvals process completed in time. A variety of strains are useful for testing vaccines, tracking the origin of outbreaks, etc. Why risk going to jail working with anthrax when you can safely work on pond scum?

This loss of talent devoted to infectious diseases is just that, a loss. In the anthrax attacks, the skill and knowledge to trace them came from two small labs studying anthrax’s evolution. Now there will be fewer scientists working on vaccines, methods of detection, treatments, etc. There are fewer eyes to notice suspicious developments, new strains, perhaps indicating a threat. While some control over infectious disease research is needed, creating a climate of fear is counter-productive.

SARs proved that where infectious diseases are concerned openness and trust allows a much better response than secrecy and fear.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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