Clear and (ever) present danger

All of the talk about the West Nile virus reaching possible outbreak proportions reminded me of the frenzy that occurred following the release of the movie “Outbreak” in the mid-1990’s.

When the film came out, I was interviewed by John Tesh, the host of Entertainment Tonight. He asked whether the movie was accurate. And whether it portrayed a realistic depiction of what a modern viral disease outbreak might look like in the United States. 

I told him that we actually witness “outbreaks” every year, with each new strain of viral influenza.

Granted, the flu isn’t as “exciting” as exotic-sounding illnesses like West Nile virus. But it has in fact been much more deadly.

As a matter of fact, each new strain of flu kills 25,000 to 30,000 people in the U.S. each winter. And the 1918 influenza epidemic killed tens of millions of people worldwide—and about two million in the US. The epidemic began right as the WWI Armistice was being readied in the Fall of 1918 and went on to kill more people than had died in all of that deadly war.  It was probably introduced into the U.S. from returning soldiers at Ft Devens, right here in northeast Massachusetts. 

When I served at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I knew that lung tissue specimens had been archived from young soldiers who had died during the epidemic. So I was the first to suggest that Army pathologists isolate the virus using new technologies to find out what made it so deadly that year. Since then entire government careers have been made out of my idea. And yet, a flu pandemic still occurs every year without raising much comment. Let alone the nationwide panic that ensues in the movie “Outbreak.”

But obviously, it’s a clear and (ever) present danger. The good news is that there are some very effective ways to protect yourself from the flu epidemic. Starting with, quite simply, washing your hands regularly. With good, old soap and water. No need to tote around those anti-bacterial gels you see everywhere these days. In fact, you’re better off avoiding those altogether.