Chapter 1

One Ten Millionth Of A Metre


Breathe in, and your body starts a battle. Countless microorganisms hitch a lift on every stream of air being pulled into your lungs, seeking out a place where they can embed themselves and multiply. Once inside every potential form of nutrition is fair game: blood cells, fat cells, skin, bone marrow, lymphatic fluid – all hosts for the army of invaders that just want to find a way of increasing their numbers. You are alive because your body has evolved ways of fighting them off. No medicine can match the efficiency of your own army of defenders across such a vast range of attackers, without killing off its host as well.

HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS, is a beautiful thing to look at; rather like a three dimensional cog with rounded buds spread across its spherical surface. In cross-section the central Capsid, which contains the genetic material responsible for allowing HIV to fight off all but the most sophisticated drugs, is coffin-shaped. So beautiful, so appropriate, but so terrible that it is able to cut through an entire country in just a few years, leaving a scarred, distressed and dying landscape of human beings in its wake.

In South Africa, nineteen percent of the population of 44 million are infected with HIV[i]. In Lesotho, twenty-three percent of the two million inhabitants have HIV. In Botswana, twenty-four percent of the population of just under two million – that’s nearly a quarter of every person in this tiny country; adults, children, even new born babies – have a virus that will eventually kill most of them[ii]. Over a million of these tiny viral entities could fit, side by side, on this full stop. We may have evolved defences against the oldest and most common viruses, but human evolution is a slow process; we have no natural defences against HIV.  

HIV Viruses and Capsid

Figure 1: HIV viruses and (inset) cross-section showing the central coffin-shaped capsid (Source: © Boehringer-Ingelheim / Wikimedia Commons)

Here is another statistic. The World Health Organisation estimate that Dengue Fever, caused by four types of closely related virus, is a risk for around two-fifths of the world’s population[iii]. Without treatment, Dengue Fever is deadly in twenty percent of cases, and there are around fifty million cases of the disease every year. Dengue Fever is spread by mosquitoes, as is Yellow Fever, which kills 30,000 people a year. Japanese Encephalitis is also spread by mosquitoes, but develops in pigs and birds before being passed to humans by the same species of mosquito that infected these other animals. This kills around 15,000 people a year and leaves another 25,000 permanently paralysed.

Influenza is not spread by mosquitoes: it is spread by birds, humans and many other mammals including domestic dogs and cats – in fact any warm-blooded animal can potentially harbour and pass on influenza in its many forms. The worry, quite rightly expressed by epidemiologists and other health professionals about the potential for a catastrophic influenza pandemic (global infection), is not based on some abstract idea that bears no resemblance to reality; it is a genuine fear that echoes fiction in so many ways. Compare this quotation:

By midnight the barriers were set up, and by dawn the next morning, the morning of the twenty-fifth, several people had been shot at the barriers, most just wounded, but three or four killed. Almost all of them were people coming north, streaming out of Boston, stricken with fear, panic-stupid. They were dealt with.

But by that evening, most of the men manning the barricades were sick themselves, glowing bright with fever, constantly propping their shotguns between their feet so they could blow their noses. Some…simply fell down unconscious and were later driven back to the jackleg infirmary that had been set up over the town hall, and there they died.[iv]

With this one:

The Boston Globe reported that in the twenty-four hours preceding 7:00 am of September 23, 66 men, all of them probably in the peak years of physical prowess, had died.

The statistics boggled Welch’s mind: the sight of the lines of sick men shuffling through the cold, penetrating rain to the hospital gave him no encouragement about the immediate future. He needed no stethoscope to conclude that the problem for many of them was lung failure. He could see that at a dozen paces: some of them, stumbling along, the blankets over their shoulders soaking up the fine drizzle, were turning blue and even purple.[v]

It would take a brave person to tell which the fictional report is: it is actually the first one, from Stephen King’s doomsday epic, The Stand. The second quotation is from an American study of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which took twenty-five million lives globally, or 1.5 percent of the world’s population. The general public only seem to have recently grasped the deadly potential of the seemingly innocuous flu virus. A healthy person can catch one of the more benign and common strains of flu and spend a few days in bed albeit with considerable discomfort, before making a full recovery.

 Astonishingly, up to a billion people worldwide may be infected every year[vi] with influenza, of which half a million will die. Such is the population of the Earth (6.6 billion and counting) that half a million people is a global “hiccup” – a mere 0.008 percent of humanity; yet the Indian Ocean tsunami, which took 300,000 lives in December 2004, is still remembered as a world-changing event. Less than one percent of the annual global toll from influenza died in the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Nineteen hijackers in four aircraft making a coordinated attack on the military and financial centres of the USA are tangible targets on which we can pile our collective wrath. Unknowably vast numbers of sub-microscopic virii do not a tangible target make.


What Is A Virus?

With an irony that speaks volumes about the direction we are heading as a species, the simplest description for a virus comes from the world of computers. Such is the extent that we have substituted our ancient love of nature for the modern love of technology, that we often have problems seeing the real world without a technological analogy to help us along the way. So, for the uninitiated in technology, a computer virus is a small, simple piece of computer code (a program) that attaches itself to a larger piece of code in order to duplicate itself and spread. At the time of writing, there were about 74,000 computer viruses in the “wild”[vii] (now there’s a bizarre use of the term “wild”, if ever there was one). For the uninitiated in biology, a natural virus is an organism that has no means of reproducing other than by using another organism as a host; generally that organism is a cell within a larger organism, such as a person, plant or fungus. Viruses reproduce by convincing a cell, by use of its protein coating, that it is a desirable object to welcome into the cell’s interior. Once inside, the virus loses its protective coating, revealing the genetic code, which is then copied by the cell’s nucleus, just as though the cell is copying its own genetic material. The cell then ejects the newly replicated viral material through its walls and, voila! Replication is complete. This is clever stuff, especially considering that a virus may not, in fact, be a living thing.

Obviously something that is less than a micron (a millionth of a metre) across couldn’t be considered an animal even by the most imaginative biologist; but whether something that is not even capable of reproducing on its own or with another virus, let alone being able to move, excrete or grow, should be considered “living” is another matter. Scientists cannot agree with each other on this, largely because the definition of “life” is unclear: is it the ability to be self aware – in which case things could get very complicated due to the limited ways in which this can be tested (try holding a mirror in front of a sightless creature to understand the problem); is it the ability to grow, move, excrete, respire, reproduce and all those good things; or is it simply “the ability to move a genetic blueprint into future generations, thereby regenerating your likeness”?[viii] We do know that there are probably more different viruses than all (other) types of life, and that there are certainly more individual viruses than all (other) individual life forms put together; so, if viruses are living then they are most certainly the most successful life forms that there has ever been.

The thought that my entire body is teeming with viruses that my own defence systems are having to constantly fight off, and that if I find my immune system to be compromised in any way – whether from lack of nutrients, or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus – I could fall foul of them is not the kind of thing that makes for a restful state of mind. Most people only knowingly come into contact with a virus when they have a cold, or other minor infection, so have little reason to be aware of their existence. Our ignorance of viruses, though (and we are tremendously ignorant, despite the great strides that have been taken in bringing immunization to the masses) is something that could be our undoing.

Take the poliovirus, the cause of Poliomyelitis. I have some home movies of my sister and I happily playing on the beach at Margate, a middle-sized seaside resort in England, during the hot summer of 1976. Dutifully we would stack up lumps of chalk into makeshift dams in the shade of the Victorian sundeck and then fill the resulting inundations with handfuls of the white foam that gathered in lines at the water’s edge. The source of the foam was a short sewage outfall not half a mile away, which also deposited partially treated human excrement a few metres out to sea, only to be washed back inshore with the foam by the rising tide.

Across the Thames Estuary, about 30 miles away, lies Southend on Sea. It was on the coast of this town in the late 1940s that the legendary songwriter and performer Ian Dury contracted polio, a life-threatening disease that is carried in faecal matter, and can be caught merely by swallowing a small amount of infected water. It was almost certainly from a poorly chlorinated swimming pool near the Spanish town of Altea, that my own father contracted transverse myelitis, a related viral disease of the nervous system, which led to him being partially paralysed from the waist down. All the time I happily played in the sewage-ridden waters of Margate no one thought to warn me that I should perhaps be careful.

At this point you might be expecting me to say: “and it is here that I contracted polio,” but I have nothing so emotive to add. I am fit, healthy and (so far) free of disease, and that is thanks to my immune system working in the way it should. Whether it will keep up with changes that happen in the future is another matter.


A World Of Change

The world is heating, and change is happening faster than expected. The signs are there for everyone to see: a polar ice cap that opens up enough to allow ice-free navigation for the first time since humans colonised North America; the accelerated calving of icebergs in the Southern Ocean; the early emergence of bulbs and other spring plants in temperate zones; even the wine trade is feeling the change as southern Europe dries up and northern Europe warms. It doesn’t take a big change in global temperature to make a difference – as of the end of 2007, the average global temperature had risen 0.7°C above the mean for the previous two hundred years – because this is a planet of carefully balanced systems. Thresholds that are a hair’s breadth from being breached are ready to tip like card houses in a breeze.

The British Antarctic Survey, about as sanguine and level-headed a body as you could find reported this in 2006: “Adélie penguins, a species well adapted to sea ice conditions, have declined in numbers and been replaced by open-water species such as chinstrap penguins. Melting of perennial snow and ice covers has resulted in increased colonisation by plants. A long-term decline in the abundance of Antarctic krill in the SW Atlantic sector of the southern ocean may be associated with reduced sea ice cover.”[ix] Three separate findings, and a whole web of changes that spawn from them: webs that you will find everywhere, and many of which I will show you throughout this book.

*   *   *

Come and visit Suffolk, England, on a warm day in September 2007:

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said last night that tests had confirmed bluetongue in a second cow at the Baylham House Rare Breeds Farm, near Ipswich, Suffolk. It was immediately slaughtered to limit the chances of the disease spreading. Bluetongue has already spread across the Continent to Britain. On Sunday, Debbie, a ruddy-haired Highland cow who was a favourite with visitors, was put down after being found to be suffering from the midge-borne disease.

While tests continue to see if more animals have been infected, Defra announced that from 3.30pm today a huge bluetongue surveillance area restricting the movement of animals will be established over a 150km radius around the Suffolk farm where the disease was first found. This is the maximum distance that midges can fly, but if they have spread from Suffolk, biting animals as they go, the infection could be much more widespread. It has spread like wildfire across farms in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, having originated in Africa. Thousands of animals have died or been destroyed, causing massive losses for Continental farmers.[x]

Bluetongue is an arbovirus, short for “arthropod-borne virus”. Arthropods include spiders, centipedes, shrimps and crabs; but, most importantly, they include insects, the most diverse group of animals on Earth. Anything that assists the spread of a disease is known as a “vector”, which essentially means the movement of something in a specific direction. Mosquitoes are notorious vectors for diseases, and not just those caused by viruses. Midges, which are closely related to mosquitoes, range from the harmless (to humans), non-biting Cecidomyiidae, to the painfully persistent Highland midge, which has been suggested as the reason for much of Scotland being undeveloped.

The midges that are responsible for the spread of the bluetongue virus are temperature sensitive: based on the global “temperature gradient” a tenth of a degree increase pushes breeding grounds north by at least ten kilometres. If there are anomalies in temperature caused by local warming, insects can be pushed far further. Temperature gradients also operate with height above sea level, with every ten metres in height causing a drop in temperature of 0.1°C. That means that with 0.7°C of additional heating midges, or any other temperature-sensitive organism, can range over land that is up to seventy metres higher than previously. That makes a lot of difference in hilly areas.

Fortunately for humans, midges can be easily killed off by frost, but as frosts have been starting later and later in the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the midges have been able to extend their breeding cycles into stormier times of the year. This effectively means that they can be blown across seas and into previously unaffected areas. If that wasn’t bad enough, warmer temperatures also cause faster breeding.

A study carried out in 1999, found that mosquito larvae were extremely sensitive to temperature in determining how quickly they developed into adult mosquitoes[xi]. At 15°C the average development time for two types of mosquito were 44 and 61 days respectively. When the temperature was increased to 22°C this development time was reduced to 32 days for the first type and 24 days for the second type. At thirty degrees, the second type of mosquito was able to go from larvae to adult in a mere 14 days. The significance of this is mind-boggling when you consider how quickly mosquitoes can breed. If a seven degree increase in temperature is able to reduce the breeding cycle of a mosquito by thirty-seven days, then that means a mere one degree increase in temperature could allow for one additional breeding cycle during the breeding season. Given that a female mosquito can lay hundreds of eggs in its short lifetime, one extra breeding cycle is a frightening prospect: one more generation of mosquitoes can mean a thousand-fold increase in numbers. A thousand fold increase in West Nile Virus, Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, and Japanese Encephalitis. Am I scaremongering?

Valere Rommelaere, 82, survived the D-Day invasion in Normandy, but not a mosquito bite. Six decades after the war, the hardy Saskatchewan farmer was bitten by a bug carrying a disease that has spread from the equator to Canada as temperatures have risen. Within weeks, he died from West Nile virus.

Paul Epstein, a physician who worked in Africa and is now on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, said that, if anything, scientists weren't worried enough about the problem.

"Things we projected to occur in 2080 are happening in 2006. What we didn't get is how fast and how big it is, and the degree to which the biological systems would respond," Epstein said in an interview in Boston. "Our mistake was in underestimation."[xii]

Am I scaremongering, then?

I really don’t think so.


Packing Them In

Liverpool Street Station

Figure 2: Liverpool Street Station, London  (Source: Author’s photo)  

For fourteen years I travelled into London by train, for the most part alighting at Liverpool Street Station in the heart of the Square Mile, the financial centre of the UK. It took me a while to get accustomed to the constant threading, dodging and occasional colliding of thousands of people heading to and from work within the concourse and on the noisy, hectic streets outside. The density of travellers is modest, though, compared to the tumult of people thronging the platforms, concourses and pavements of Southern and South East Asia. In India, suburban trains still dominate, transporting over 3 billion people a year across the cities of the nation[xiii], while the cross-country and cross-state lines are rightly known as the arteries of the nation. But there is a price to pay in terms of comfort, “intimate” would be a good word to describe a rush-hour journey. This pen picture written by a Mumbaian describes the experience wonderfully:

When train arrives on platform, one starts by praying to one's favourite God. The arrival of the train is marked by a sudden change in the atmosphere at the station. Everyone, including the seemingly docile auntie pulls up her (ahem) socks, clenches her fists and gets ready for THE GREAT CHARGE. This sight can easily make initial non-supporters of evolution great believers of Darwin’s Theory, for what follows is nothing but living proof of Darwin's idea of 'Survival of the Fittest'.

Another reason I believe that the rails offer too much for the measly sum we pay for the tickets is that they provide free exercise, body massage and stretching aerobics early in the morning (as well as all day through) which is definitely an advantage for today's health-obsessed generation.[xiv]

The battery conditions of human transportation throughout the world – whether on foot in London, bicycle in Beijing, underground railway in Tokyo, car in Los Angeles or train in Mumbai – are symptoms of an overcrowded planet full of time-dependent, job-dependent, money-dependent people. Intimacy is rarely of our choosing: the lives we are increasingly shoehorned into by economic necessity (in other words, “work or die”) are often led in squalid conditions. It is a blessing that the notorious walled city of Kowloon, with a population density approaching two million people per square kilometre, is no longer with us, but similar, much larger urban areas exist, and are growing. One part of Mumbai in India squeezes 200,000 people into just 1.7 square kilometres[xv]; an area half the size of New York’s Central Park. Kowloon still accommodates over two million people at a density of 118,000 people per square kilometre: six times as cramped as central London.

Battery conditions are not restricted to humans. As we treat people, we also treat animals. Karl Taro Greenfeld described the method of storing wild animals for food in Guangzhou, China as “industrialized”:

In one cage in Xin Yuan, I counted fifty-two cats pushed in so tightly that their intestines were spilling out from between the wire bars. There were fifty-five such cages in this one stall. There were fifty-two stalls down this one row of vendors. And there were six rows in this one market. There were seven markets on this street.[xvi]

Four million animals in a single street is an astonishing estimate, but not when you consider the scale of battery farming in China. According to the US Department of Agriculture[xvii], in 2004 there were 85 poultry farms in China each with over a million birds being bred for meat, and a total of four billion birds slaughtered in that one year. The battle against “bird flu” or the H5N1 virus is being waged in the back yard farms of Eastern Europe and South East Asia, with mandatory housing, and sometimes slaughter taking place at the first sign of a diseased bird. Yet these free-range conditions are merely the stopping off points for wild birds that have already contracted the virus. The source of the virus and the cause of the most lethal strains of influenza are bound up in the way that viruses operate on large, densely packed populations of animals.

The process by which organisms evolve starts with the mutation of a piece of its genetic material. Mutations cannot be predicted, but can be encouraged to happen more or less frequently; for instance, certain types of radiation are able to change the chemical makeup of an organism’s DNA, so can be said to accelerate the mutation process. By their nature, mutations only involve a single gene at a time; multiple genetic changes require multiple mutations. In most cases genetic mutations have little or no effect on the organism; in other cases the mutation may be damaging to the organism, for instance it may lead to excess cell division, which can lead to cancer, or it may impede the organism’s ability to reproduce. In some cases, though, the mutation is a positive step for the organism, and it is this type of mutation that is generally considered to be “evolutionary”. In order for a virus to pass to a species other than the one it is currently hosted by it may have to undergo a number of mutations, none of which can be damaging to the virus itself. Eventually the virus may have changed sufficiently to make the hop to another species.

Evolution through mutation is a slow and haphazard process and, in normal population densities, more often than not the virus will end up as a benign scrap of DNA, unable to do its genetic duty. In vast populations of birds that are pecking, flapping and depositing faecal matter upon each other, a veritable viral bean-feast can take place. Viruses are rapidly passing from bird to bird, and back again, mutating and evolving as they go. A single incidence of highly pathogenic (deadly) bird flu can wipe out an entire shed of birds within 48 hours, according to the World Health Organisation. WHO goes on to say: “Apart from being highly contagious among poultry, avian influenza viruses are readily transmitted from farm to farm by the movement of live birds, people (especially when shoes and other clothing are contaminated), and contaminated vehicles, equipment, feed, and cages. Highly pathogenic viruses can survive for long periods in the environment, especially when temperatures are low. For example, the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus can survive in bird faeces for at least 35 days at low temperature (4°C).”[xviii] The long survival time at low temperatures helps explain why influenza outbreaks occur more frequently during temperate winters in the Northern Hemisphere (the other reason, particularly for rapid spread, is that people stay indoors and crowd together more when it is cold). For once, global warming is not to blame. The same cannot be said for human behaviour.

The book “China Syndrome” by Karl Taro Greenfeld contains a superb analysis of the social and biological conditions that led to the global outbreak of SARS in 2003, and then the inevitable spread of H5N1 from 2006 onwards. He writes: “For a microbe, a city is a target-rich environment, with slabs of human meat stacked literally one over another in apartments and houses, waiting to be consumed. Of the four major modes of disease transmission – waterborne, vector borne, airborne or direct contact – each is facilitated by urban life.”[xix] We create perfect environments for viruses to spread and thrive, right down to the artificially moist and putrid environments without which such agents would die in minutes.

When you bring the kind of rich pathogenic soup that can be found in cities in close proximity to the kinds of bird farming described above then the likelihood of cross-species transmission is greatly increased. If a human influenza virus evolves sufficiently to infect a bird, and that bird is infected with H5N1 bird flu then the two viruses can mix and “swap” genes[xx]. The resulting virus will then have enough common characteristics to both infect humans and create the kind of turmoil that H5N1 has caused in flocks of birds. It only takes one person in the vast genetic pool of our major cities to contract a transgenic virus for it to then become a human epidemic.

It only takes one flight across the world for an epidemic to turn into a pandemic. Humans like to fly; it has become one of the key aspirations of the consumer society to take long trips to different parts of the world and experience the way that other nations display their heritage, build their houses, pollute their waterways and position their Coca Cola machines. We travel to distant lands to lie on distant beaches in order to come home and tell our distant friends what the distant beaches were like. Tourism is not just big business, it is the primary business of many countries; and God help anyone who tries to stop flights from continuing to feed their economic boom! Air travel is excluded from all international, and the vast majority of national targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is expected to account for 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, up from just 3 percent in 2006[xxi].  It is illegal for an individual country to tax aircraft fuel and aircraft parts.[xxii]

A study published in the scientific journal Nature in 2006 found a remarkable drop in the numbers of early-onset influenza cases amongst humans in the period following the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001. “The 27 percent drop in passenger numbers on international flights delayed the normal peak of flu deaths by nearly two weeks, from February to March. And the fall in domestic air travel meant that the disease took 16 days longer to spread throughout the country.”[xxiii] Incredibly, and almost certainly due to economic pressure from business and business-friendly governments, restricting air travel does not form part of international plans for preventing the spread of any potential strains of highly pathogenic influenza.

While scientists watch the skies for migrating birds that may harbour avian flu, the same skies are filled with people who may be carrying something equally lethal.


Death By A Thousand Cuts

The H5 strains of avian influenza are often called the “Ebola of the bird world”. The Ebola of the human world, and also that of a number of other primates, is something that almost defies description, such is its brutality:

A nurse brought a bag of whole blood. Dr Musoke hooked a bag on a stand and inserted the needle into the patient’s arm. There was something wrong with the patient’s veins; his blood poured out around the needle. At every place in the patient’s arm where he stuck the needle, the vein broke apart like cooked macaroni and spilled blood, and the blood ran from the punctures down the patient’s arm and wouldn’t coagulate. The patient continued to bleed from the bowels, and these haemorrhages were now as black as pitch.[xxiv]

Ebola is a type of haemorrhagic fever, the type that leads to the liquefaction of the internal organs while the sufferer “bleeds out”, infecting almost everyone who comes into contact with the copious quantities of blood that the sufferer emits. There are other forms of haemorrhagic fever with the most common types, Dengue and Lassa, being far less deadly than the much rarer Marburg, Rift Valley and Ebola. The reason that Ebola has not caused more deaths overall (about 1200 deaths since it was first discovered[xxv]) is because of the speed with which it kills the victim – as little as 4 days from first exposure. HIV, on the other hand, can lie dormant for years, being passed from person to person without any symptoms showing.

But while HIV can only be passed from human to human in its current configuration, Ebola can seemingly pop out of nowhere, cause a spate of deaths, and then disappear with epidemiologists none the wiser as to precisely where the original infection came from. Rift Valley Fever is harboured in cattle, goats, sheep and other hoofed animals; Lassa resides in a species of West African rodent; Ebola’s primary source is officially “unknown”.

Martin Wiselka, a consultant in infectious diseases at the Nuffield Hospital in Leicester has little doubt over the reasons for Ebola’s emergence. He says: “Exploiting wild habitats such as the tropical rain forests allow interaction between human hosts, animals and vectors of infection, such as rats and insects. This can increase the likelihood of certain infections such as yellow fever, hantavirus and Ebola, which are normally carried by animal hosts.”[xxvi]

*   *   *

The Congo River sweeps round in a continuous arc from the northern heights of Zambia in the heart of Africa, through the ignominiously named Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) until finally, after 4,700 km, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at the small town of Muanda in the Republic of the Congo. Covering the bulk of its catchment area, swelling its volume with incessant rainfall, is the second largest continuous area of forest in the world: the Central African Rainforest. This great block of green canopy contains some of the richest plant and animal habitat in existence. This area of forest also contains, potentially, around 37 billion tonnes of carbon, more than the whole of Southeast Asia and the USA combined[xxvii]; that is over five times as much carbon as all human activity on Earth produces each year.

The extent of this vital carbon “sink”[xxviii] is shrinking each year. In 1990 the Central African Rainforest occupied 2.5 million square kilometres; in 2005 it occupied less than 2.4 million km², a reduction of about five percent in total area[xxix]. Five percent may not seem like a lot, but when you look at the speed the forest is degrading at the same time then you realise something fundamental is happening. According to a report published in 2007[xxx], over a quarter of this unique habitat had been earmarked for logging, while only twelve percent was officially protected – in practice not protected at all. From a disease point of view, the expansion of logging tracks and other roads is equally disturbing: “[the study] found that road density had increased dramatically since the 1970s and that around 29 percent of the remaining Congo rainforest was ‘likely to have increased wildlife hunting pressure because of easier access and local market opportunities’ offered by new logging towns and roads.”[xxxi] Access to forest means access to disease vectors, and in this part of the world that means a potential outbreak of Ebola is never far away.

The way that humans are exploiting the rainforests of Central Africa, for tropical timber, for minerals like coltan – a key component in micro-electronics – and gold, and increasingly for “bush meat”, beggars belief. Yet, it seems as though any price is worth paying for economic wealth: climate change, degraded habitats, silt-laden rivers, even a disease that could strike at any time, kill off an entire town in days, and then disappear again. And there lies a vital message: if we don’t exercise discretion in the way we treat the planet, its animals and its plants, then we may fall foul of the smallest, yet one of the most effective killers that there has ever been: the not so humble virus.

[Continue to Chapter 2]


[i] UNAIDS, “2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic”, 2006, (accessed 28 November, 2007)

[ii] Not everyone infected with HIV will develop full-blown AIDS; the main reason being that many will die of other causes before the incubation period has passed. If the recipient of the infection does survive the incubation period (up to 10 years, but far less without drug therapy) then it is almost certain that they will contract AIDS.

[iii] (accessed 28 November 2007)

[iv] Stephen King, “The Stand”, 1978, New English Library.

[v] Alfred W. Crosby, “America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918”, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[vi] (accessed 28 November, 2007)

[vii] Information from Symantec Corp. (accessed 28 November, 2007). An “in the wild” virus is one that has been detected on a computer other than the one on which it was developed, i.e. it has multiplied.

[viii] George Rice, “Are Viruses Alive?”, (accessed 28 November, 2007)

[ix] British Antarctic Survey, “Climate Change – Our View”, (accessed 30 November, 2007)

[x] The Independent, “Second case of bluetongue found in Suffolk”, (accessed 30 November, 2007)

[xi] Jirí Olejnícek and Ivan Gelbic, “Differences in response to temperature and density between

two strains of the mosquito, Culex pipiens molestus Forskal”, J. Vector Ecology (25), 2000.

[xii] Washington Post, “Climate Change Drives Disease To New Territory”, 2006.

[xiii] Indian Railways Yearbook 2005-6, (accessed 4 December, 2007)

[xiv] “The Great Mumbai Rail Experience”, (accessed 3 January, 2008)

[xv] Demographia, “Selected Current and Historic City, Ward & Neighborhood Densities”, (accessed 4 December, 2007)

[xvi] Karl Taro Greenfeld, “China Syndrome”, 2006, Penguin Books.

[xvii] USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, “China, Peoples Republic of Poultry and Products Semi-Annual Report 2006”, 2006, (accessed 4 December, 2007)

[xviii] World Health Organization, “Avian influenza – Fact Sheet”, 2006, (accessed 6 December, 2007)

[xix] Greenfeld, ibid.

[xx] Ontario Genomics Institute, “Is it possible that avian flu can combine with Spanish Flu?”, (accessed 6 December, 2007)

[xxi] New Scientist, “European airlines to trade emissions allowances”, (accessed 6 December, 2007)

[xxii] As described in the (former) Chicago Convention, 1944: “Fuel, lubricating oils, spare parts, regular equipment and aircraft stores on board an aircraft of a contracting State, on arrival in the territory of another contracting State and retained on board on leaving the territory of that State shall be exempt from customs duty, inspection fees or similar national or local duties and charges.” International Civil  Aviation Organization, “Convention on International Civil Aviation: Ninth Edition, 2006”, (accessed 13 June, 2008).

[xxiii] Nature, “Planes play big role in spreading flu”, (accessed 6 December, 2007).

[xxiv] Richard Preston, “The Hot Zone”, Doubleday, 1994.

[xxv] World Health Organization, “Ebola haemorrhagic fever”, (accessed 6 December, 2007)

[xxvi] Martin Wiselka, personal communication, 7 November 2007.

[xxvii] “State of the World’s Forests 2007”, UN FAO, (accessed 6 December, 2007)

[xxviii] A carbon sink is anything that locks away carbon rather than it being released into the atmosphere.

[xxix] UN FAO, ibid.

[xxx] Nadine T. Laporte, Jared A. Stabach, Robert Grosch, Tiffany S. Lin, Scott J. Goetz, “Expansion of Industrial Logging in Central Africa”, Science (8), 2007, (quoted in (accessed 6 December, 2007))

[xxxi] Ibid.


A Matter Of Scale by Keith Farnish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.


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