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Next Global Epidemic only a Matter of Time

20 April 2007


Virologist Albert Osterhaus in Heidelberg

When Albert Osterhaus was doing his doctorate in virology in 1978 his colleagues warned him that he was flogging a dead horse. "The age of virus epidemics has gone for good," was a widely-held belief among biologists and medical experts at the time. Today, however, the world's leading virologist is much in demand and a very busy man.

In 2003 Osterhaus and his team identified the SARS agent in only ten days. By comparison, HIV had taken two years to pin down. For years, the Dutch-born scientist has been tracking down extremely dangerous and elusive viruses, among them the avian influenza bug H5N1 commonly known as the "bird flu" virus.

"There is one thing I can assure you of. The next influenza pandemic is only a matter of time," Osterhaus told his audience at the beginning of a lecture he gave at the Print Media Academy in Heidelberg entitled "Epidemics and Pandemics in a Globalised World" and organized jointly by the European Laboratory for Molecular Biology, the German Cancer Research Centre and the University of Heidelberg. The way we live today makes it supremely easy for an epidemic to spread in no time, the scientist said.

Increasing mobility via global air traffic, global commerce and contact with exotic animals are all factors that favour the spread of viruses. In the 14th century, when the Black Death befell Europe and killed one third of its population, it took three years for the epidemic to get from Sicily to Norway. In early 2006 bird flu took no more than a few weeks to spread from Turkey all across Europe.

For Osterhaus it is no coincidence that the AIDS epidemic broke out when it did. Since 1985 AIDS has killed approximately 20 million people. "And this illness will still continue to take its toll, much more severely than we currently believe," he says, predicting that even 25 years from now there will still be no vaccine against AIDS.

Due to constant changes, new virus types are constantly evolving and the human body has yet to develop immunity against them. Avian influenza is a case in point. So far, people dying of this virus have caught it directly from birds. But once the virus has mutated sufficiently to pass on from one human being to another, nothing will be able to stop a pandemic. The only solution to this problem would be for economists and politicians to join forces and provide the funds for the development of a new vaccine against the infection. But that, says Osterhaus, would cost something in the vicinity of 100 million euros.

© Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung


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Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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