Mutated Pathogens On the Rise
JD Adams ... en-jda.php
(SALEM, Ore.) - Imagine a small town in the Midwest, the streets are empty, yellowed papers swirl in the wind. The clock tower on Main Street tolls noon, but there is no one to hear it. One by one, the inhabitants have succumbed to a host of plagues for which they had no immunity.

Is it an impossible scenario, a scene from the Twilight Zone, or the Outer Limits? Think again. Newly mutated infectious diseases that threaten to decimate our population are jumping from animals to humans at an alarming rate.

According to Montira Pongsiri, a scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., "We appear to be undergoing a distinct change in global disease ecology. The recent emergence of infectious diseases appears to be driven by globalization and ecological disruption,"

The global pandemic of HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS, is only a sample of what the future may hold in store. Scientists think this virus has been lurking in humans for decades, and until recently has been misdiagnosed. It likely originated in chimpanzees, and infected humans in West Africa when increasing population drove a trade in bush meat, and subsequently increased human contact with infected animals. Worldwide, over 25 million people have died from complications linked to AIDS.

Swine flu is the result of virus mutations originating in pigs and birds. Although an epidemic in 2010 was fairly mild, scientists anticipate future highly infectious strains of swine flu that will have severe mortality rates.

In 1993, a mysterious case appeared in the Southwest United States, a young Native American who complained of a high fever, chills and breathing problems, but who died quickly. Doctors soon realized it was Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, a disease usually found in rats and mice. Hantavirus also results in serious internal bleeding, and kills four out of five people infected. There is no known cure.

Rabies is almost 100% fatal is left untreated, but if treatment is administered within ten days after exposure, the prognosis is good. New intradermal vaccinations for humans have replaced the old regimen requiring several painful injections into the abdomen. Most cases in the United States result from dog bites, but rabies can be contracted from any infected warm blooded animal. In Oregon, the numbers of rabid raccoons are on the rise.

Epidemiologists are most concerned about mutations of the avian, or bird flu. It has already infected huge numbers of chickens and ducks in Asia, and poses such a threat of jumping to humans that it is considered a potential plague of the 21st century. Pandemics from influenza that crossed to humans occurred in 1918, 1957, 1968, and in 2009.

A fungal infection known as white-nose syndrome is rapidly killing North America's bats, which are top predators, involved in limiting the proliferation of insects. One senior wildlife expert describes the epidemic as "the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife caused by infectious disease in recorded history". The infection has spread from upstate New York to other Eastern States, resulting in a possible ecological disaster, especially if it manages to spread to the West Coast. A million brown bats will eat at least 500 tons of insects during their active feeding season. The impact to farmers and the food supply, and on an ecosystem already stressed by disease, will be devastating. The pathogen was likely brought over from Europe by a human, scientific investigations suggest.

Other diseases on the rise include malaria and the West Nile virus, both carried by mosquitoes, and both spreading into new regions. Malaria harbors an especially lethal strain that is becoming drug resistant.

Genetic mutations are known to increase with exposure to radiation. Indeed, the theory that evolution itself is driven by mutations caused by exposure to cosmic rays has entertained considerable consensus within the scientific community. The atomic testing that occurred during the Cold War significantly raised the level of background radiation on Earth, which peaked in 1963. The evidence surrounding the appearance of infectious viruses crossing over from animals points to increasing mutations beginning decades ago. Coincidence? You decide.