On Sunday I watched the BBC Horizon show "Pandemic"
. (Horizon is akin to Nova here in the States.) It was concerned with the possibility of a bird flu pandemic amongst humans. I could have done without all the dramatizations as the scientists' descriptions and predictions were chilling enough. The virus was shown as a sphere with lots of protuberances, each with a group of spikes at the tip. The only thing holding back a pandemic is that those spikes can't attach themselves to most human cells. One little mutation and that could change, however. All an infected person would have to do is cough and the virus starts spreading. You breath in that efflux and the virus gets into your lungs and you're infected.
So I get into work on Monday not looking forward to another day of the old Sturm und Drang
. At one point I locked my computer and started to get out of my chair when 2 guys who sit near me coughed. I froze and immediately thought about bird flu. It was an odd moment.
I found the program to be quite interesting as I knew virtually nothing about bird flu going in. Outside of learning how the virus works, the most fascinating parts were ones which brought up ethical dilemmas. For instance, who gets a bed in an Intensive Care Unit? A doctor who was interviewed remarked that his hospital has only 100 assistive breathing machines. What do you do when you've got thousands of people who need one? How do you decide who gets to be put on one of them? Another and, perhaps, even more perplexing dilemma involved vaccinations. Suppose a pandemic strikes and, a few months in, a vaccine is developed. You can only produce so much vaccine and can't give it to everyone. So who gets it? Should the elderly be denied because of their age? I mean, they've lived the majority of their lives already – so perhaps younger people who have the majority of their lives ahead of them should get the vaccine. If so, what young people? One argument goes that people between 20-40 should get preference. They have education and youthful vigor to do the work that needs to be done and to revitalize a decimated economy. What about children then? Should they be denied because their potential is too far away from being realized? You can watch Professor Peter Dunnill examine this question here
. And does anyone really think that Third World countries would get much, if any, of the small quantities of such a vaccine?