Monday, November 07, 2005
I’m going to bed now as I have a fatal case of inconsistency—No one wants bird flu to turn into a pandemic but if it does, I kind of hope it strikes first at the creationism and “intelligent design” folks—not lethally mind you, just enough to put them in bed for a few days so when their heads clear they might wonder. You see, the pandemic, whether it comes or not, is living proof of evolution. In fact, influenza viruses are superb examples of how evolution works in quick time.
The virus, as it stands now (H5N1) is now infecting birds and a few humans. It is not very infectious. What everyone fears is that the virus will evolve into a pathogen that is more easily transmittable to humans and one with increased virulence, although the present iteration kills 50% of its victims. Notice the word “evolve.” Even President Bush, who has publicly supported "intelligent design" in schools, used that verb. If it evolves, he said, it could kill 2 million. Hmmm. This is not true only of viruses. Bacteria often mutate (evolve) into bugs resistent to antibiotics. Those bugs most resistent have a greater chance of survival than those that do not and they reproduce and eventually we are stuck with a generation totally resistent. Think of malaria parasites, which have evolved in two ways. Some evolved to be resistant to drugs like quinine once used to prevent the disease, and others have evolved to resist drugs used to treat the disease. And of course, in some places, they evolved both ways, making malaria almost impossible to prevent or cure. Kind of hard to explain in a world without evolution, what?
Actually, we cope with this every year with influenza. The flu vaccine we use is based on the best guesses of what the virus will evolve into when it strikes. The typical flu vaccine has three strains, the three mostly likely to spread. Sometimes, the experts guess right. Sometimes they guess wrong. But what they are worrying about is evolution, how the virus will evolve. Every year we get new strains.
If “intelligent design” is real, this shouldn’t be happening (unless the intelligent designer wants birds, animals and people to get the flu) and worrying about bird flu and spending money to prepare for a pandemic is a waste of time and funds.
You might want to know there is some controversy about whether the bird flu thing is a real threat, with a small minority of scientists and journalists claiming the threat is vastly overblown. I don't know. They are not making this argument because of the evolutionary aspects of it, but are arguing epidemiology. Go here for a visit to that little brouhaha and meet a new and extremely useful blog called Effect Measure, written by public health experts. Worth bookmarking, especially if the birds hit the fan.