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OU on the BBC: Background Brief - Our Biggest Smallest Threat: The Story So Far

Updated Friday, 7th July 2000
They may be small, but some viruses are particularly worrying to humans. Janet Acquah finds out more

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Janice Acquah Imagine a virus that could travel like the flu - and kill like HIV. One so small that it would be almost impossible to identify, let alone halt. Films like ’Outbreak’ and ’The Andromeda Strain’ play on our fears of a "killer virus" scenario, but those films are works of fiction, right?

Well, that’s what Janice Acquah set out to investigate. But the facts she unearthed didn’t completely put her at ease …..

..... for example:

Viruses are emerging more frequently than ever before. 40 years ago, around two new viruses were discovered every decade … now the figure is more like two new viruses per year.

Ebola, Lassa, Marburg and HIV are frightening examples of these deadly organisms. The death tolls where they strike are sobering - proving that though medical science is advanced, an unknown organism can catch everybody unawares. Even the not-so-humble flu virus can be a killer. We’ve known about it for many decades now, but flu experts are still involved in a full-time race to keep up with the virus as it mutates.

Map showing location of viruses Our modern lifestyle increases the possibilities of viral attack by exotic organisms. For example, a virus presently located in a remote rain forest, could by means of air travel, be in a major city by this time tomorrow … and infecting the public transport system hours later. We now live in such crowded cities that the scope for transmission of a virus which travels through the air is greater than ever before.

Man with sandwich board about comet However, although all the ingredients for a killer-virus scenario do undoubtedly exist, it’s hard to find a medical expert who believes it’s likely that the entire human race will be wiped out by one lethal strain. They tend to put it on a par with the likelihood of us being exterminated by a killer asteroid impact.
Because although viruses can be super-efficient at attacking larger organisms, our bodies are phenomenally good at protecting us.

Our skin presents the first barrier to infection. Then there are defences inside the body which, for example, act as early warning systems between the cells and the white blood cells helping to close down the activity of the viruses.

Virus victim These are very sophisticated processes which often take place without the body’s owner knowing anything about it - although sometimes the side-effects of the activity are those feelings of aching, shivering, sweating, temperature hike and loss of appetite that characterise a fever. Finally the body gets the measure of the virus, and can begin to manufacture antibodies specifically to act against it.

There’s another reason to take heart. Although a particular virus could be nightmarishly virulent against humans … it’s not likely to kill all of us. Genetic variations between members of the human species mean that there will always be some people who don’t succumb to a particular infection. This has already been demonstrated recently with HIV - and needless to say is a subject of much research since it may yield clues for the fighting of the virus for everyone else.

First broadcast: Friday 15 Oct 1999 on BBC Two

Explore our biggest smallest threat further:

Emergency team Websites

... to find out more about emergent viruses:
Emerging and Re-Emerging Viruses: An Essay
Educate Yourself: About Emergent Killer Viruses

... you’ve read about them, now have a look at them:
The Big Picture Book of Viruses

... for news and information on influenza protection and control:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Influenza Prevention and Control

World Health Organization: Health Topics


... pulling no punches about the lethal possibilities presented by viruses today:

Virus X
- Frank Ryan
Published by HarperCollins

... the book which became the film. Fictional, but directly related to this subject ...
The Hot Zone
- Richard Preston
Published by Corgi Paperback

... to find out more about the what we can do to deal with viruses ... and the problems involved:
A Dancing Matrix : How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses
- Robin Henig
Published by Vintage Books


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