One more disease to watch closely

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Most of the time in Indian country, the list of things that can get you is
long indeed. If too much sugar and fatty foods don't kill you, the PCBs and
the mercury upstream will; if the black mold infestation doesn't wipe out
your lungs, maybe the high rate of smokers around you will, or the alcohol;
and so on.

Well, here's another one to think about. From the list of diseases that
could unleash a pandemic, pull up the dreaded, newly-generated Asian bird
flu. This international threat - also known as the H5N1 subtype of the
avian influenza virus - is likely to be one more very dangerous result of
civilization's need to manufacture animals, in this case chickens and other
fowl, by the tens of thousands for people to eat. Such a quickly-evolving
virus could, in this age of globalization, make its way across the world
and kill millions upon millions.

It is a killer, this Asian bird flu that emerged from chicken farms in the
Far East from Thailand to China and is known to kill quickly and widely
wherever it can spread. Top World Health Organization officials
periodically warn the global community about this one. While so far it has
been confined to small outbreaks in several Asian countries, officials warn
that the virus could "unleash a pandemic that could kill up to 50 million
people."

H5N1 flu has demonstrated the ability to transfer from birds to infect
humans. A 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong killed six of 18 people directly
infected by animals. It also set the pattern for high mortality in infected
victims. Of this year's 44 confirmed human cases of H5N1 flu in Thailand
and Vietnam, 32 victims died.

In the past several years, outbreaks among chickens, ducks and other fowl
in Asia prompted the slaughter of millions of birds. A Thai woman who
contracted it from her daughter was the first person in the latest outbreak
to get bird flu from another human; and although isolated, unconfirmed
cases of human-to-human transmission were logged in Hong Kong and Vietnam.

The human-to-human transfer is what could kick-start a pandemic. The virus
is known to mutate, and experts fear it will create a form that will spread
easily through the human population and create a worldwide pandemic.

Epidemics and pandemics are nothing new to American Indians. Cowpox,
chickenpox and smallpox were scourges of early contact with Europeans for
virtually every Native nation. These diseases originate in the habit of
Western and other civilizations to pen animals and live in close proximity
with them.

The impact of epidemic disease brought from Europe to American Indian
villages cannot be overstated. Where actual annihilation did not occur,
typically "decimation" is the word, where 9 out of 10 people died. Such a
degree of death took the joy out of the people, and the Pilgrims invoked a
sense of the new Christian God's wrath to justify the onslaught of so much
death among the indigenous people. Whole villages of many tribal nations
were left empty, as if inviting the new migrants to settle in.

Some Christian leaders thought they were watching the hand of Providence at
work, when actually a contact-level ethnic cleansing was making its way
across an unsuspecting hemisphere. The negative impact of the diseases that
spread such monstrous death among the Native populations was severe. Only
now, centuries later, are American Indian nations recovering both
population and conscious political and social power.

We promise in these pages to keep abreast of the health threat posed to
Indian communities, particularly in the West Coast and in Canada, by this
subtype of the Asian bird flu. Tribal health systems are urged to learn
more about the potential effects as well as remedial approaches to this
potentially deadly contagion. There is not yet a vaccine widely available
for the disease, but raising the capability for response is always a
welcome strategy.