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The Devils We Know

Posted on Apr 27, 2009

By Eugene Robinson

    Mexico City is one of the greatest urban agglomerations in the world, a dense and teeming mountain valley with a population of more than 20 million. Wealthy enclaves have the sleekness of Manhattan or Beverly Hills, but much of the metropolitan area is gritty and anonymous. It must be an easy place to disappear.

    Yet somehow, amid all the chaos and bustle, Mexican health authorities noticed an unusual cluster of deaths—first just a handful, then a few dozen. That observation led to the identification of a new, potentially dangerous strain of influenza, and now governments worldwide are issuing travel advisories, readying stockpiles of medicine, canvassing hospitals for possible cases of “swine flu,” and, of course, telling citizens not to panic.

    The initial response to the flu outbreak, which may have the potential to become a pandemic, illustrates first of all how sensitive and responsive the global health-monitoring system has become. If the world is going to be ravaged by an infectious disease, chances are that we’ll see it coming.

    The unusual deaths in Mexico City that caused officials to sound the alarm were not, after all, so unusual. It’s expected that people will die of flu during flu season. But it’s not normal for relatively young, healthy adults to die of flu, as was happening. It was a real achievement for authorities to notice a few anomalous deaths and connect the dots.

    The reaction to the new flu—which combines genetic material from avian, swine and human influenza viruses—also illustrates how we spend a lot of time worrying about the wrong potential disasters.


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    Many experts in risk analysis blame this misdirected anxiety on the “dread” factor. The classic example is airplane travel. The idea of dying in a plane crash is so horrible that some people refuse to fly, even when it is pointed out that they are many times more likely to be killed in an accident while driving to the airport.

    Likewise, when we as a nation look at the dangers presented by today’s world, our attention is drawn to the most dreadful possibility. When I was growing up, we feared an all-out nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union; we did “duck and cover” drills in elementary school, as if intercontinental ballistic missiles were no match for our sturdy desks. Today, the Russians still have enough nuclear weapons to blow us all to smithereens, but hardly anyone worries about this anymore. We focus, instead, on the possibility of terrorists somehow obtaining a nuclear device and detonating it in an American city.

    This means that our foreign policy debate these days centers on unstable Pakistan, which has nukes, and belligerent Iran, which is trying its best to get them. Obviously, that region has to be our most urgent priority. But we also should think about other threats that could potentially cause much greater loss of life than any conceivable terrorist attack—and that loom much closer to home.

    The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. There is no evidence that the new strain of swine flu is anywhere near as deadly as the 1918 flu, and in fact the cases identified in the United States thus far have caused only one hospitalization and no deaths. But the reason officials are declaring emergencies and monitoring the spread of the disease so closely is that they know, in tragic detail, what havoc a 1918-style flu would bring.

    Several years ago, when avian flu broke out in Asia, I called a few experts in risk analysis for comment, expecting them to say that everyone should just calm down. Instead, they told me that if someone was looking for a legitimate potential disaster to worry about, a deadly flu pandemic would be an excellent choice.

    Officials don’t know why the cases of swine flu in the United States seem so much milder than those in Mexico. They do know that the U.S.-Mexico border is no barrier at all, as far as microbes are concerned.

    Back when we were ducking and covering in fear of a Soviet attack, the first few cases of a swine flu eruption might have gone undetected. Like most flu outbreaks, this one probably will be contained. In the meantime, I’m going to wash my hands a lot more often than usual.
    Eugene Robinson is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
  © 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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By samosamo, April 29, 2009 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

I guess I will wait until the 30k to 35k that regularly die from the flu have passed away and how soon they do so before I get back into my suspicions of a bio-weapon attack.

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By Blackspeare, April 29, 2009 at 1:47 pm Link to this comment

In our zeal to create a zero risk, zero tolerance world we have produced a weakened population.  A good pandemic will go a long ways to culling the population.

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By katsteevns, April 28, 2009 at 12:23 pm Link to this comment

Funny how you avoid the subject of state sponsored bio-warfare all together.

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By tropicgirl, April 28, 2009 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment

No offense, Mr. Pulitzer, sometimes I think you write stories without even a superficial Googling the history of such things. Here’s a perspective that is all over the web and all over Wikkipedia (in many entries) that you don’t even consider in your comments. The funny thing is, is that everyone else knows it. New viral strains like this are very hard to happen by accident, they need human help.

(Stick to the lighthearted fluff unless you want to do the modest amount of research). Sorry to be so negative, but its so frustrating to read your casual comments on serious matters.

From Prison
Monday, April 27, 2009

There are some factors that suggest the swine flu killing people in Mexico may be a biological weapon, but obviously no such conclusion can be drawn at this time. The World Health Organization and the U.S. government have been quick to deny such claims.

The swine flu virus is described as a completely new strain, an intercontinental mixture of human, avian and swine viruses. Tellingly, there have been no reported A-H1N1 infections of pigs.

According to a source known to former NSA official Wayne Madsen, “A top scientist for the United Nations, who has examined the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Africa, as well as HIV/AIDS victims, concluded that H1N1 possesses certain transmission “vectors” that suggest that the new flu strain has been genetically-manufactured as a military biological warfare weapon.

Madsen claims that his source, and another in Indonesia, “Are convinced that the current outbreak of a new strain of swine flu in Mexico and some parts of the United States is the result of the introduction of a human-engineered pathogen that could result in a widespread global pandemic, with potentially catastrophic consequences for domestic and international travel and commerce.”

Fort Detrick, the U.S. Army Medical Command installation that was the source of the 2001 anthrax attacks, is again attracting suspicion in light of the swine flu panic after it was revealed that criminal investigators are probing whether virus samples recently went missing from its biolabs.

In February, USAMRIID halted their work when virus samples were discovered that were not listed in its inventory. Criminal investigators from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division unit at Fort Meade are now probing whether virus samples are missing from the Army’s top biolab, which also studies pathogens including ebola, anthrax and plague.

Obviously, in light of the current swine flu scare, and the new strain’s possible synthetic origin, the fact that virus samples may have gone missing from the same Army research lab from which the 2001 anthrax strain was released is extremely disturbing.

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By MICHAEL RUMENOV YANAKIEV, April 28, 2009 at 9:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear Eugine,
It is obvious at least for me that the overpopulation of our planet is the central issue that our crooked establishment is about to address.This will be done through the “bubble game” that was so successful in the financial and economic crises. When 1% of the world population is controlling 40% of the world resources and playing the lairs game, it may very well decide that it wouldn’t hurt to reduce the world population by 80-85%. So a pandemic that can be that deadly combined with other effective measures conducted in this well disguised direction seem worth trying. It is definitely more safe than leading conventional atomic wars, where there is little hope for any one. Finally the few that proclaimed themselves the chosen ones, will stretch out to get what they want!? I however have certain doubts if such a rationale will cunningly outplay human history. It is a survival game in which we are getting ourselves involved, destroying consciously any objective truths and values on behalf of cynicism. Since things are already nearly totally out of control, we will have the chance to see “the Creator’s” final will.Is death falling asleep when life is such a unpleasant dream? It is to be seen.

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By Hulk2008, April 28, 2009 at 7:45 am Link to this comment

Many best wishes and congratulations to Mr. Robinson on his recent Pulitzer award.  His sane commentary on many topics allow us to see a vein of calm truth amidst the daily media fury.

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