We tend to presume linearity in our environment: we assume that tomorrow will be like yesterday; next month like last month, etc. It's understandable and it makes a workable hypothesis for most of the practical priorities we face in life. However, it is also clear that our reality is often disturbed by "non-linearities," which can come in many forms. Certainly Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast and the recent earthquake in Pakistan are traumatic examples. But earthquakes and hurricanes are not the only "non-linearities" we face in our reality - pestilences have also been promised as a sign of the end times:
For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of birthpangs.
The fourth of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse also suggests the same:
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
(The "beasts of the earth" may not necessarily be the four-footed kind: they may require a microscope!) This is the reason that biotechnology and global pestilence are among the "Strategic Trends" that we attempt to monitor regularly on our website and in our study materials.
With the advent of antibiotics 50 years ago, scientists predicted the end of death and suffering from infectious diseases. During the past 25 years, however, we have witnessed the reemergence and geographical spread of well-known diseases. And in recent years, new new pathogens have emerged, some of which carry antibiotic-resistant genes or mutations enabling them to move across different species.
The Spanish Flu of 1918
The Spanish Flu (so called since it was first reported in Spain) emerged just after the end of World War I. It was perhaps the most deadly pandemic in human history. In 18 months it killed between 20 and 50 million people, more than the Black Plague or AIDS. In the United States it accounted for half of all deaths in 1918 - about 6% of the population.
Most strains of the flu do not kill people directly; rather, death is caused by bacteria, which surge into the embattled lungs of the victim. But the Spanish flu that circulated in 1918-19 was a direct killer. Victims suffered from acute cyanosis, a blue discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes. They vomited and coughed up blood, which also poured uncontrollably from their noses, and millions experienced acute respiratory distress syndrome, an immunological condition in which disease-fighting cells so overwhelm the lungs in their battle against the invaders that the lung cells themselves become collateral damage, and the victims suffocate.
Two teams of scientists recently announced that they had reproduced the 1918 Spanish flu virus. They discovered that the 1918 virus was a bird flu that jumped directly to humans. It has taken scientists 10 years to reconstruct the virus, and they did so using lung tissue from two soldiers and an Alaskan woman who died in the 1918 pandemic. According to the New York Times:
The findings, published in the journals Nature and Science, show a small number of genetic changes that may explain why this virus was so lethal. It is significantly different from flu viruses that caused the pandemics of 1957 and 1968. Those viruses were not bird flu viruses but were human flu viruses that picked up a few genetic elements of bird flu.
A new strain of the avian flu, H5N1, may be far more dangerous than the dreaded Spanish Flu. It kills 100% of the domestic chickens it infects, and among humans the disease may be just as fatal. It has already infected over 100 people with an over 54% fatality rate. The medical histories of those who have died from H5N1 influenza are disturbingly similar to accounts of sufferers of the Spanish Flu in 1918-19: otherwise healthy people are completely overcome by the virus, developing all of the classic flu symptoms - coughing, headache, muscle pain, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, high fever, depression, and loss of appetite. Victims also suffer from pneumonia, encephalitis, meningitis, acute respiratory distress, and internal bleeding and hemorrhaging.
New Pandemic Concerns
There have been four pandemics during the last century, which emerge, on average, every 30 years. Between one and four million people died during the last flu pandemic, which hit Hong Kong in 1968. Health experts at the World Health Organization have indicated that we are long overdue for an outbreak: As with an earthquake or any other natural occurring phenomena, we cannot give an exact time, but the situation now is particularly concerning in that we are so long after the last pandemic. We are living perhaps on borrowed time.
There is a vaccine for the bird flu; however, officials do not currently have an ability to mass produce it or get it to people quickly. The manufacturing process is uniquely complex: pharmaceutical companies must grow viral samples on life chicken eggs, which must be reared under rigorous hygienic conditions. Research is under way on reverse genetics and cellular-level production techniques that might prove cheaper, faster, and less contamination-prone than using eggs, but for the foreseeable future manufacturers are stuck with the current laborious method. After cultivation, samples of the viruses must be harvested, and antibodies must be produced in test animals and human volunteers, and tests must prove that the vaccine is not contaminated. Only then can mass production commence.
The H5N1 strain poses an additional problem: the virus is 100% lethal to chickens - and that includes chicken eggs. It took researchers five years of hard work to devise a way to grow the 1997 version of H5N1 virus on eggs without killing them; although there have been technological improvements since then, there is no guarantee that an emerging pandemic strain would be cultivated fast enough.
If there is an outbreak of avian flu, health officials estimate that it would spread rapidly and could infect nearly one-third of the world's population. (It's interesting that the series of "Trumpet Judgments" in Revelation 8 are known as the "Judgment of the Thirds.")
Even routine flu vaccine supplies can be problematical, complicated by the fact that very little vaccine is actually made in the United States. Last year, when the United Kingdom suspended the license for the Chiron Corporation's U.K. production facility for flu vaccine due to contamination problems, Canada and Germany bailed out the United States, supplying additional doses until the French company Sanofi Pasteur could manufacture more. Even with this assistance, however, the United States' vaccine needs were not fully met until February 2005 - the tail end of the flu season. The Bush Administration has recognized the weaknesses of our public health systems following the anthrax scare of 2001, and Congress has approved $3.7 billion to improve the nation's public health infrastructure. But the greatest weakness in the case of a pandemic would be the inability of hospitals to cope with a sudden surge of new patients, etc.
Protection against "Non-Linearities"
Worry is assuming a responsibility that God did not intend for you to have. While we need to be diligent in preparing for whatever contingencies may confront us, let us not forget the Lord's exhortations:
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
2 Timothy 1:7
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from...the pestilence that walketh in darkness...A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee...neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
excerpts from Psalm 91:1-10