Plague, SARS, Flu and Ebola: what lessons have we learned?, Jan 21

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

In 1894, an outbreak of a mysterious disease, so-called “Hong Kong fever” evolved into an epidemic which lasted for 15 years taking the life of over twenty thousand. It was then discovered by a French-Swiss bacteriologist Dr. Alexandre Yersin and a Japanese microbiologist Dr. Shibasaburo Kitasato that the disease is caused by a bacteria which is now called Yersinia pestis. The disease was then spread to other Asian countries leading to more death and huge economic impact. The awareness of personal and public hygiene was improved.

Almost 100 years later in 2003, Hong Kong was again hit by a mysterious febrile illness. Without any idea about the nature of the disease, but simply a severe pneumonia leading to respiratory failure and death within a short period of time, the disease was called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Virologists of the world is again competing and chasing after the source and origin of the disease identified as a Cornavirus that involves bats and cats as intermediary host. Because of international travel, SARS was spread much faster than any other infectious diseases in the past. The economic and political repercussion was immense. The epidemic stopped only by international collaborations and proper use of public health measures.

In less than one decade, however, Hong Kong and China were again under the threat of zoonotic influenza. Initially the culprit was identified as birds (avian flu) and poultry, then it was realized that pigs (swine flu) and domestic animals were incriminated. With heightened alertness, advent in vaccine technology and significantly improved collaborations between countries, these influenza viruses have not yet cost many life and financial consequences. However, the worry is that the potential risk factors are still there and small-steps mutations may lead to multi-drug resistant virus to emerge.

While the world is worried about Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, we need to think about… what lessons have we learned from all these contagions?