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04 October, 2012

The Deadly Viruses That Threaten Human Survival

Scary stuff. I need some Purell for my eyes after reading this article. :/
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Killers on the loose: the deadly viruses that threaten human survival | Society | The Guardian: ... Infectious disease is all around us. It's one of the basic processes that ecologists study, along with predation and competition. Predators are big beasts that eat their prey from outside. Pathogens (disease-causing agents, such as viruses) are small beasts that eat their prey from within. Although infectious disease can seem grisly and dreadful, under ordinary conditions, it's every bit as natural as what lions do to wildebeests and zebras. But conditions aren't always ordinary.

Just as predators have their accustomed prey, so do pathogens. And just as a lion might occasionally depart from its normal behaviour – to kill a cow instead of a wildebeest, or a human instead of a zebra – so a pathogen can shift to a new target. Aberrations occur. When a pathogen leaps from an animal into a person, and succeeds in establishing itself as an infectious presence, sometimes causing illness or death, the result is a zoonosis.

It's a mildly technical term, zoonosis, unfamiliar to most people, but it helps clarify the biological complexities behind the ominous headlines about swine flu, bird flu, Sars, emerging diseases in general, and the threat of a global pandemic. It's a word of the future, destined for heavy use in the 21st century.

Ebola and Marburg are zoonoses. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918–1919, which had its source in a wild aquatic bird and emerged to kill as many as 50 million people. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. As are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, rabies and a strange new affliction called Nipah encephalitis, which has killed pigs and pig farmers in Malaysia. Each of these zoonoses reflects the action of a pathogen that can "spillover", crossing into people from other animals...

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