A Warning to Get Your Flu Shot

By Justin Tippens (jtippe01@villanova.edu)

Connelly Center, Villanova, PA-Are you a germaphobe?  Does the thought of bacteria and dirt haunt you into washing your hands 25 times a day?  Then microbiologist Dr. Robert G. Webster’s ominous warning of a “threat to us all” will chill you to the core.

Dr. Webster spoke on Friday, September 24th at the annual Mendel Medal Lecture in the Connolly Center.  Webster questioned our daily safety in his lecture titled, “The role of waterbirds in the genesis of pandemic influenza viruses.”  Mentioning that the World Health Organization has declared the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak to be over, Webster insists on our luck at stopping the disease that took us completely by surprise.

Recounting the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, Webster discussed the effects of the global terror.  Webster asserts that the US unknowingly used biological warfare based on the origins of the “Spanish flu” being traced to Kansas and the devastation on the USS Leviathan on the way to France.  Webster attributes the WWI cease-fire to the influenza threat over military prowess.  The massive quantities of fatalities due to this epidemic have not been repeated.

Although Webster informs us that the “secrets” of the 1918 H1N1 virus have been discovered, he warns of the precarious situation for the planet.  Migratory birds carry most of the influenza on the planet.  While some birds, like chickens, show symptoms of infection, others, like ducks, do not.  Vaccines have been given to birds in Egypt, yet an interfering maternal antibody renders the vaccine obsolete.

Webster particularly stressed the ability of the virus to adapt.  The H1N1 has some relationship to the pig, which scientists don’t know yet.  The unforeseen swine flu which recently ravaged the globe developed from an amalgamation of different influenza strands from different animals.  Another variation, the H5N1 bird flu, kills two-thirds of whom it infects.

After rocking our fragile perception of our own safety, Webster highlighted areas of danger.  Noting the amount of flu outbreaks from Asia, Webster finds that markets in Asian countries like Hong Kong and China hazardously arrange animals in the same holding stocks.  In Egypt, people have started keeping their chickens in their homes increasing the probability for disease transfer.  Webster even felt irksome about backyard poultry in the US.

Webster advocates more vaccinations and more funding for new technologies to improve the vaccination process.  As a man of science, he wants to improve his resources to unlock the keys of the unknown.  Webster is calling for research on healthy pigs as the key to understanding the new adapted virus, complaining that all the testing is being done strictly on sick pigs.  He hopes for local efforts made on a global scale.

However, Dr. Websteralso wants to eliminate the live poultry market everywhere.  Although such solutions may make sense to a microbiologist, implementation appears unrealistic.  Disturbing foreign markets will generally be ill-received by governments and citizens.  Also, there are safety issues related to vaccinations, like the risk of acquiring mental disorders, such as autism.

Webster may have used the government’s stockpile of vaccines to frighten the audience ofthe seriousness of his cause; the existence of a stockpile shows some preparation for an outbreak.  Also, non-medicated solutions can be found in strengthening your immune system with a healthy diet and exercise.  Harm done by the flu specifically to the obese population offers an extra incentive to boost your body’s resistance to contagion.

Webster’s lecture was no insignificant oration, however.  As an acclaimed microbiologist, the virus “gives him the creeps”, which disseminates the grim reality of our safety.  The 2009 H1N1 virus was circulating for 7-17 years before it spread.  Warnings of a big hurricane in New Orleans fell on deaf ears for decades before hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.  Hopefully Webster’s prophetic death knell won’t ring until after our lifetimes.

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