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Deadly Infectious Viruses Come From Many Places Besides China
Originally published 3/19/2020
While the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing out the best in many of us, it’s brought out the worst in others. It should come as no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a wave of racism and xenophobia. You don’t have to look far to see derogatory comments and slurs directed at many people with an Asian heritage, whether they are Chinese or not. To paraphrase Paul Simon, “They’ve been slandered, libeled, they’ve heard words you never heard in the bible.” Chinese restaurant sales plummeted weeks before any efforts were put in place to close all eating and drinking establishments. And despite efforts by the World Health Organization to destigmatize the virus by giving it an official, non-geographic name (SARS-CoV-2), we still see a number of leading Republican politicians, including Sec. of State Mike Pompeo, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, and most notably President Trump, continuing to refer to it as the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” coronavirus. That’s because xenophobia is a strong part of the Party’s brand.
Someone asked me, “How come all of these dangerous viruses keep coming out of China?” The question, of course, implies that the Middle Kingdom is the only source of perilous viral diseases. That people believe this only shows how little people know, and how much they’ve forgotten. The truth is, infectious diseases come from all corners of the planet, and sometimes spread widely after they emerge. Here’s a brief geographic overview of some of the most prominent viruses in each region:
Africa - Somehow, people have lost track that a number of deadly viruses have their origins here. The most prominent examples are the widely feared Ebola and Marburg viruses, along with (formerly untreatable) HIV that spread globally in the 1980s.
Asia - Among the many other viral threats that are found across Asia are the Nipah virus, which also causes acute respiratory illness, and Japanese encephalitis virus.
Australia - Though not well know outside of the country, those living Down Under are familiar with the Australian Bat Lyssavirus, along with Hendra viruses. Infections with either of these can be fatal.
Europe - Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus (WNV) disease, and Toscana virus (TOSV) disease are all potential problems there. There are also concerns about yellow fever along with other well-known Western viruses discussed below.
North America – Folks living here may be having a hard time coming up with examples of endemic infectious diseases, but we have plenty of them. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, West Nile virus, Dengue Fever, and of course standard influenza. Don’t forget rabies and Hantavirus infections, which, thankfully, are not very common.
South and Central America - It wasn’t all that long ago that people were panicking about the spread of the birth-defect inducing Zika virus before that infectious wave subsided. Less well known, but also very sickening, is the Chikungunya virus, which has only recently become endemic across much of the Caribbean. Yellow fever and Dengue virus are also a problem there. Much less well known are the Itaya, Iquitos, Ngari and Ilesha viruses.
Looking back historically, some of us are old enough to remember the scourges of polio, measles, rubella, chicken pox, and smallpox, all of which have been largely curtailed via the development of effective vaccines. Vaccine denial groups like to claim that near elimination of most of these diseases was actually brought about by improvements in sanitation and the availability of clean water. This “improved sanitation” hypothesis is clearly not true since there’s been no worldwide reduction in these standards over the past few months, and yet the COVID-19 outbreak is spreading globally at breakneck speed. Not surprisingly, some vaccine deniers are already objecting strongly to the first coronavirus vaccine trial that only started a few days earlier.
We can’t forget the tragic legacy of the importation of a number of infectious diseases brought to North America by European explorers that killed an estimated 90 percent of the Native American and First Nations peoples. Some of this spread was accidental, while other occurrences were a deliberate early version of germ warfare.
One element that distinguishes these emerging viral diseases is the fact that they often arise in other species, and then become adapted to reproducing in humans. These species include mosquitos, bats, mice, monkeys, dogs, horses, ticks, pangolins, and birds. Figuring out which species in the primary host for new and emerging viruses can be challenging, especially because these viruses often don’t cause significant illness in those species. The phenomenon by which these foreign viruses become adapted to live in humans is known as spillover or zoonotic transmission.
You’ll also hear some people say that we didn’t know in the US that these viruses were a national threat and could possibly become pandemic. The fact is that infectious disease experts and some government officials have been warning us for decades about just such a possibility. In the US there are a number of governmental groups that have been charged with monitoring these diseases, including folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAIAD). And until the Trump administration disbanded it, we had the National Security Council’s Pandemic Response Team, whose primary responsibility was monitoring the spread of these viruses and planning responses. Emergency supplies for a public health emergency are stored in the National Strategic Stockpile, although it appears that the levels of these may turn out to be woefully inadequate.
Stop blaming China and Chinese (and other Asian) people for the current COVID-19 outbreak. It only fuels hatred and violence. Ignore conspiracy rumors that the virus was created in a lab (this detailed molecular analysis shows that’s not the case), or was created by a wealthy individual or an already persecuted religious group. Don’t waste your money on miracle cures, “all natural” immune system boosters, or colloidal silver solutions pitched by former televangelists who have gone to prison for fraud. These are being pitched solely to separate you from your money. Pharma has been given a golden opportunity here to rehabilitate its seriously tarnished reputation if it can come up with successful treatments for COVID-19, as well as an eventual vaccine. Let’s hope they can rapidly deploy their cutting edge science and take full advantage of this.
Please focus your energy on keeping yourself and your family members, friends, and neighbors’ safe by following instructions for social distancing and hand washing from government experts. We will make it through this by pulling together; reject divisiveness, hatred, and xenophobia. Those that promote these ideologies are losers, not leaders.
Photo credit: CDC
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