December 9, 2009
By David Gutierrez
The same infectious fungus that caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is now spreading across the Northeastern United States, causing alarm among farmers and raising the specter of another spike in food prices.
“People need to realize this is probably one of the worst diseases we have in the vegetable world,” said plant pathologist Meg McGrath of Cornell University. “It’s certain death for a tomato plant.”
McGrath referred to the fungus, known as late blight, as “worse than the Bubonic Plague for plants.”
Although not harmful to humans, late blight spreads easily between infected plants, whether in fields or on the shelves of a garden supply store. Although fungicides can be used to control it if applied before symptoms appear, it is considered far more reliable to remove and destroy any infected plant as quickly and completely as possible.
Late blight appears in the Northeast with some regularity, but this year the outbreak has been fueled by rainy weather and the proliferation of big-box stores with massive garden sections. The fungus has already been identified in Alabama, Ohio, Vermont, West Virginia and every East Coast state with the exception of Georgia.
In response to the outbreak, Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart have pulled all tomato plants from their New England and New York stores. It is still unclear whether the fungus has gained a significant foothold in agricultural fields, but growers are worried. Because containing a late blight outbreak is expensive, widespread contamination could lead to a significant jump in food prices.
November 20, 2009
By Alan I. Sipress
As swine flu was spreading around the globe this spring, a senior disease specialist from the World Health Organization (WHO) held an urgent conference call with top British health officials. In the conversation this May, later described as “aggressive” by sources familiar with the discussion, the WHO official accused the British of concealing the extent of their country’s swine-flu outbreak. Among those with swine-flu symptoms, Britain was only counting people who had traveled to places that, like Mexico, had already confirmed an outbreak of the virus, known to scientists as H1N1. Their method left much to be desired in a country where the virus was already spreading fast. Countless Britons fell sick and were intentionally left uncounted.
More… Governments, of course, have a long history of concealing outbreaks, and this year’s flu pandemic, while the first of this particular century, was certainly not the first to be brushed under the rug. The consequences of cloaking swine flu weren’t disastrous on this occasion, but the result will not always be so benign. In fact, at this very moment, another virus — with the potential to be far more devastating — is continuing to seed infections, frustrating efforts to root it out. That virus, H5N1, or avian flu, is a far more lethal strain. And you guessed it: front-line countries’ records in candidly reporting the disease’s spread don’t bode well.
If there’s one thing past pandemics have taught, it’s that curing the world of flu is impossible unless countries are upfront about their outbreaks. Armed with that vital information, health officials can take steps to slow the spreading infection and, if containment fails, ramp up emergency medical care and other vital services. Without timely disclosures, it’s much harder for virus hunters to discover how an emerging disease attacks its victims and transmits to others; it’s also much tougher to get virus samples for study in the lab.
Given all this, why would governments try to keep down their official infection tallies? Most likely, fear of stigma and all the economic consequences that follow. When the WHO placed its call to London last spring, the agency was still weighing whether to raise its state of alert and declare that the swine flu epidemic was a full-blown pandemic, a dramatic step that would signal all countries to ready themselves for the brunt of the new virus. It was clear that the virus was spreading in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the United States and Mexico. But under the agency’s criteria, a pandemic could be declared only if “community-level outbreaks” were confirmed in more than one region of the world. If Britain acknowledged that the virus was spreading widely, that would add Europe to the list and push the outbreak across the pandemic threshold.
September 2, 2009
By Maggie Fox
Swine flu is spreading more quickly in the U.S. Southeast, where schools started back earlier than in other areas after the summer break, a U.S. health official said on Wednesday.
The pandemic H1N1 influenza virus has been active since March but officials have seen a clear “uptick” in activity in some areas in recent weeks, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters.
“That little uptick we are seeing is all in the Southeast, in the school age children,” Schuchat said.
Health experts say school age children and young adults are more likely than others to be infected with swine flu, and have said they expected the pandemic to become more active as schools started back and children mixed with one another.
“School is back and people are beginning to pay attention,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters at a meeting about swine flu.
The CDC has advised against closing schools unless there are many illnesses, saying such measures will do little to stop flu’s spread.
On Tuesday, New York City health officials said all primary school-age children there would be offered free vaccines for seasonal and H1N1 flu this year.
The White House said the government’s efforts are aimed at minimizing the impact of H1N1 on the health of the nation and the economy. This includes education about hygiene, especially as a vaccine against H1N1 will not be widely available until October.
“We don’t expect to have vaccine before there are increases in disease,” Schuchat said.
Five companies are making swine flu vaccine for the U.S. market — AstraZeneca’s MedImmune unit, CSL Ltd, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Novartis AG and Sanofi-Aventis SA.
Seasonal flu infects between 5 percent and 20 percent of a given population every year but 90 percent of severe cases and deaths are among the elderly. It kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people globally.
Because this virus is new, more people are susceptible to it and the World Health Organization has been predicting for months now that 2 billion people will likely become infected.
Sebelius says she’s worried about sick people rushing to emergency rooms and the “worried well” besieging doctors. “We know that there may be a tendency to overwhelm the healthcare system,” Sebelius said.
So the U.S. government is rolling out flu education and communication campaigns so that people who do not need medical care do not seek it.
People with asthma, lung disease, diabetes, heart disease, as well as pregnant women and the morbidly obese have a much higher risk than most people of becoming severely ill with flu. The CDC says these people, as well as children, healthcare workers and young adults, should get the H1N1 vaccine first when it becomes available.
Seasonal flu vaccine is available and HHS and CDC urge Americans to get that vaccine now, even though it offers no protection against H1N1, because seasonal flu may also circulate.
On Tuesday, the CDC enlisted the help of Elmo, the colorful puppet from the children’s TV program Sesame Street, to encourage children to wash their hands and cough into the crook of their arms in four public service announcement spots.