Saturday, July 9, 2011

Zombie virus: What happens if rabies, flu viruses hybrid?

Syed Akbar

Hyderabad: The rabies season has just receded. And it's time now for the human influenza or common cold to take on. Rabies and common cold are caused by virus. Both have no known medical cure.  While common cold subsides within a week without causing much harm, rabies has always proved to be  lethal.
Both the viruses have different properties and genetic make-up. The course of disease  they choose within
the human body are different. There's no similarity whatsoever except that they belong to  one group of
organism called viruses.
Of late, with rabies and common cold, particularly caused by the novel human influenza virus H1N1,
creating panic in the State, scientists took time off their busy laboratory schedules to run their imagination
wild ala the Hollywood's zombie flicks in which different viruses mutate or hybridise to emerge into
dangerous pathogens. The question they have now thought of is: what happens if rabies and common cold
viruses exchange their genetic make-up to emerge into a new hybrid strain of virus that has the properties of both rabies and flu pathogens?
The answer though improbable is quite chilling. The new virus will just spread havoc,  killing people
everywhere and turning cities into graveyards. In other words it means rabies will become air-borne,
spreading through air, unlike the present scenario where it is spread through bite by a rabid dog.
"Rabies has been under check thanks to stray dog control programmes by local municipal bodies, but if the rabies virus gets the traits of human influenza virus, which is capable of spreading through air, nothing will stop it. But it is unlikely to happen though some scientists in the US believe  otherwise," says senior
geneticist Dr MN Khaja.
And since the "air-borne" rabies virus will find its way into the body either through  mouth or nose, death
will be instantaneous or within a couple of days. "Unlike other pathogens which travel  through blood or
lymph, the rabies virus makes its way to the brain through the nerves. The nearer the route of infection of
rabies virus to the brain, the faster the death," adds veterinary surgeon Dr Muralidhar.
Some scientists visualise a zombie like situation in the world of humans and viruses if the rabies and human
influenza viruses undergo the process of hybridisation. The rabies virus, when mutated with the influenza
virus, will behave like a zombie, with uncontrolled madness. The infected humans too will behave like
zombies, according to National Geographic report, which point out that Hollywood's zombie flicks could
very well become a reality.
To support its claim, the NG report talks of scientists in northern Arizona, who have found that animals
particularly skunks and foxes are actually spreading the virus through socialisation i.e through aerial route.
Just by moving together with an infected animal, a healthy animal may be infected with the air-borne virus,
not necessarily through bite.
"What is unusual is that this new strain of rabies appears to have mutated so that foxes  and skunks are now able to pass the virus on to their kin - not just through biting and scratching but through simple socialising, as humans might spread a flu," says a report by National Geographic News.
In the Indian scenario, wild animals are spreading the rabies virus to domestic animals  like dogs. As
members of dog family like foxes and wolves, as well as primates like monkeys too harbour  rabies within
their bodies, they are believed to be spreading the disease to stray dogs through contact  or what scientists
call socialisation between different species.
"Canine rabies typically occurs in the outskirts of the city and rural/tribal areas,  where they come in  contact with wild animals and contract the disease and then bring it into populated areas," says 
infectious diseases expert Suneetha Narreddy of Apollo Hospitals.
Rabies is a disease caused by a virus that is almost always fatal.  It is spread by a  number of animals
including dogs and cats.  In the wild, the rabies virus is present in bats, racoons,  skunks, foxes, wolves, wild dogs and monkeys. Whether the rabies virus is transmitted from wild animals to stray dogs through bites or socialisation is yet to be studied.
But since rabies and flu viruses are of different genetic make-up, hybridisation between  the two is
theoretically impossible. Mother Nature is supreme and anything is possible if things go  awry, thanks to
man's meddling of the natural laws. New pathogens and new diseases have evolved in the  recent past and
what once formed part of science fiction has now become a reality. Let's hope, such a  deadly strain with a
combination of rabies and flu traits never become a reality.
Box item:
* Viruses are simple DNA or RNA structures with a protein or lipid coat, but capable of causing mass scale death in human beings and plants.
* Viruses are a sort of barrier between living and non-living creatures in the sense that  viruses are capable
of replicating only in the presence of a living host - plant or animal. They are as good  as dead when they are on non-living creatures.
* There's no known medical cure for diseases caused by viruses. At best diseases caused  by viruses can be stopped or prevented through vaccination.
* Some of the notable diseases caused by viruses are HIV/AIDS, rabies, swine flu, bird  flu, Japanese
encephalitis, common cold, cancer of cervix in women, chicken pox and polio. 
* Viruses including the notorious HIV cannot survive in alkaline or soapy medium. Washing  hands with
soap is one of the best preventive methods.
* Viruses are capable of mutating i.e changing their structure at a fast pace. This makes  drug discovery a
difficult task.

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