Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Nature is still the boss

I haven't had a whole lot to say about the whole bird flu thing because a) you can read all about it on Effect Measure if you enjoy the feeling that death, doubt and doom loom; and b) who the hell knows what's going to happen? I try to steer clear of news of the future.

However, given that I'm now holding down the public health and Iraq portfolio for my friends at Today in Iraq, I do need to acknowledge the situation there. We've heard about the appearance of the H5N1 virus in Kurdistan, but now it's shown up in the poorer, less orderly south of the country and the authorities are worried, big time. Buried in Bushra Juhi's daily news round-up for the AP is the following (which is getting zero headlines as far as I can tell):

Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, have declared a bird flu alert in the southern province of Maysan and called for security forces to prevent people from carrying birds in and out of the area, health officials said Wednesday.The alert is the latest measure taken by Iraqi health authorities to combat the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain following last month's discovery of the country's only confirmed case of the disease in a human.

Minister Abdel Mutalib Mohammed declared the alert after birds suspected of having the disease were discovered in Maysan, a major southern trade route in Iraq, said Dr. Ibtisam Aziz Ali, spokeswoman for a government committee on bird flu.

Mohammed said the government has to "totally close" Maysan using Iraqi soldiers and police and carry out culling of poultry. He didn't elaborate further on what steps would be taken to close the province.

Mohammed held talks late Tuesday with local health authorities and tribal sheiks in Amarah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, to brief them on the bird flu threat and government measures to combat it.

"The disease has apparently spread among local birds, not migratory birds," Mohammed said. "I have seen five centers where infections have been detected by rapid laboratory testing. Now we have declared a state of health alert."

Maysan includes some of Iraq's famous marshlands, and U.S. and U.N. officials fear the deadly disease could spread rapidly if it reaches the area rich in bird life.

Bird flu has killed at least 91 people since 2003, according to the World Health Organization. Almost all the human deaths have been linked to contact with infected poultry, but experts fear the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, possibly sparking a pandemic.

Tests are being carried out at a WHO-approved lab in Egypt on samples taken from about 10 suspected human cases in Iraq, including the deceased uncle of a girl who died Jan. 17 of the disease in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region.

Now, it is possible that the ministry of health is overreacting. They have not taken similar measures in Kurdistan but that may be for political reasons -- the Kurds rule Kurdistan and I'm quite sure that Abdel Mutalib Muhammed is irrelevant there, whereas the Shiite government does have at least de facto authority in Maysan. But they have a very difficult challenge in that the region is marshy, undeveloped, and insular. There is no way the government can really understand what's going on there, let alone control the situation, which may account for the decision to try to isolate the entire region. Of course it is hopeless -- they can't stop wild birds from flying, and they can't stop people from traveling and trading.

You can look at a map here. . You'll see that the region is on the Iranian border, bisected by the Tigris, and full of swamps. The government cannot possibly seal it off, or seriously hope to control what happens inside.

If a human influenza pandemic should happen to begin in Iraq, the consequences for history may be profound. For one thing, of course, it will seriously set back the effectiveness of the military occupation for a considerable time. The insurgency, which is far less rigidly organized and hierarchical, will presumably be much less affected. It will also quickly spread to neighboring countries, and may contribute to political instability with consequences that no-one will predict.

My point in mentioning all this is not that I necessarily expect anything in particular to happen -- I just don't know. It is rather to point out that the hubris of the neocons, in thinking that they could seize control of history, was utter folly. They didn't understand Iraqi society, political science, or for that matter, nature. We're still a part of it.

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