A year after the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised an outbreak alert on April 24, 2009, by declaring that the influenza virus killing people in Mexico is also affecting people in the US, a new strain of an airborne fungus is causing several deaths in the US. “Typically, we see this fungal disease associated with transplant recipients and HIV-infected patients with compromised immunity,” wrote Edmond Byrnes III, from the Duke Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology in PLoS Pathogens on April 22.
The new genotypes of Cyptococcus gattii fungi in the US state of Oregan has killed 25 per cent of people infected, unlike the older, less deadly strain that killed 8.7 per cent people in Canada during an earlier outbreak.
The high death rate, coupled with the fact that the fungi is airborne and causes the ubiquitous symptoms — cough lasting weeks, shortness of breath, headache, fever and weight loss — is raising pandemic concerns.
Should you be scared? Cautious, yes, but not concerned. Your chances of dying of a heart attack or stroke is far higher anyway.
Over the past seven years, the world has been living on the brink of not one but three brand new infections against which humans had no natural immunity: Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Avian Influenza in 2006, and Swine Flu — renamed influenza A (H1N1) under protests from pig farmers — in 2009.
All proved to be damp squibs. H1N1, which was hailed by the WHO as the next big pandemic that would kill several millions like flies within months, has caused 17,853 deaths in 214 countries in since April 2009.
Bird flu, first detected in South Korea in 2003, has infected 421 and killed 257 people. SARS infected 8,096 people and killed 774 between November 2002 and July 2003.
Compare this with the seasonal flu, which infects most of us at least once a year and kills between 2,50,000 and 5,00,000. That is about 20 times more people in a month than the total deaths caused by bird flu and SARS.
According to the WHO, as many as 75 per cent of the infectious diseases that have infected humans over the past 30 years have originated from animals (zoonoses).
Among those thriving in humans are — influenza A from wild birds, HIV from chimpanzees, plague from rodents, hepatitis B from apes, malaria from macaques and dengue from primates. On an average, one new disease has emerged every year over the past 20 years, mainly in Africa and Asia and any one of them may become a pandemic, says the WHO.
So far, none have.
The reality is that you cannot — and should not — live in a sterile bubble. You should do the best to protect yourself, and if you get infected, don't panic. A tiny dose of virus is better than none at all.