Award-winning Author David Quammen on Swine Flu, Evolution and Ecology

TH: How does evolution play a role with viruses jumping from animals to humans?

DQ: Evolution is a hugely important aspect of the phenomenon whereby viruses and other pathogens leap from animals into humans and (sometimes) succeed in becoming transmissible human diseases. Exactly how important, and in which cases, and what ways? To answer that would take me the length of a book--which is why I'm writing a book on exactly that subject. The other important dimension from which these leap events should be seen in ecological. That brings in the factor of ecosysem disturbance and other human behaviors that increase the likelihood of disease transfer. Ecology and evolution are both important, and it's a complicated case-by-case question to determine which is more important in which case. But we can certainly say that, in the case of any form of influenza--including the current focus of attention, H1N1 "swine flu," evolution is extraordinarily important. The thing that makes influenzas especially unpredictable and dangerous is that they evolve very fast.

TH: Do you see this happening more and more?

DQ: Yes. We see more and more instances of emerging zoonotic diseases. Whether that's because we're disturbing ecosystems more drastically, transferring animals around the world, travelling more ourselves--or whether, on the other hand, it merely seems as though more zoonoses are emerging because we're watching for them more carefully: That's a conundrum that the experts are still debating.

TH: Should there be as much fear around pandemics such as swine flu, or is the fear overboard?

DQ: The new "swine flu," which is now more carefully referred to as 2009's "novel H1N1 influenza," is a subject around which so far there's been much more smoke than fire. The media attention has been wild. But there could be good reason for the WHO and CDC and other experts to be treating this one so cautiously. Influenzas, as I said, are especially unpredictable. If there's a 99% chance that this flu will be relatively harmless, and a 1% chance that it could go big, spreading into a global pandemic with a relatively high mortality rate--if those are the odds and the consequences, and you're a public health official, what do you do? Well, I think you take precautions, and tell the public to be cautious, and prepared, but not panicky. The tricky part is educating the public to understand the inherent unpredictability--and to accept the fact that there may be a number of 1% false alarms before the Big One does come along. We've got to continue to respond--but sensibly, rationally, not with silly panicky measures like wearing a surgical mask as you walk down the street.

On that note - stay tune for updates on the Quest De Quammen. If there's anyone that can make Swine Flu interesting, it's Quammen.

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