The devil they know

By Alan Perrott

Alan Perrott talks to people with the inside track on what’s out to get us and finds out how that knowledge affects their daily lives

Tsunami scientist Jose Borrero says people can't appreciate the force of a natural disaster until they see it themselves. Photo / Christine Cornege
Tsunami scientist Jose Borrero says people can't appreciate the force of a natural disaster until they see it themselves. Photo / Christine Cornege

Imagine having work stories no one wants to hear.

We'd rather not know the latest from one of the Grim Reaper's harbingers. People get funny about being confronted by unpredictable and uncontrollable forms of death. But when doom pays your bills, leaving the apocalypse at work can't be easy.

Take Dr Sue Huang. She spends her workdays guarding against potential pandemics. And we're not talking man-flu - she's at the pointy end of our battle against the really nasty bugs, the killers.

Lately, in her lab at the Institute of Envir-onmental Science and Research's Upper Hutt facility, the virologist, National Influenza Centre director and principal investigator in the Shivers project has been tracking a new flu strain in China. This new bug, officially known as H7N9, is the mutant merging of three viruses affecting ducks, chickens and Korean wild birds.

For the birds, it means a few days in the nest, but we don't get off so lightly. Unlike Sars and swine flu, this one is quite happy to be inside our comparatively chilly bodies, and as a reward we cop a 20 per cent death rate. If it stumbles across a mutation that allows it to make the jump from person to person, we'll be one sneeze away from a potential pandemic.

"I do feel nervous," says Huang. "I can see how serious this is and its potential for harm. It hasn't yet acquired the ability to transmit from human to human, but it shows all the hallmarks of being able to adapt to us as hosts."

Which is knowledge you can't forget when you're at the shop buying milk and bread, or taking a bus. Every unguarded sneeze or cough becomes a threat. "I always have tissues around," says Huang. "We always have a stock of Tamiflu at home, and I'm very aware of anyone nearby who might be unwell - I try to make sure I don't get too close."

On the bright side, such hyper-vigilance has paid personal dividends. In 2009, the swine flu pandemic had all the makings of a nightmare - it was spreading fast and there was no vaccine. Luckily, the infection appeared relatively mild - not that it was any reassurance when Huang's two young children started coughing. She immediately swabbed them, took the samples to work and started dosing them with Tamiflu as soon as positive results were returned.

So, you can imagine her anxiety levels last month when her daughter announced she was going on a school trip to Shanghai, China. The situation there has become serious enough for the Government to shut down livestock markets.

"That was a hard decision, really hard . . . and I know it's Shanghai, a population of 20 to 30 million with only about 20 cases, so I don't want to sound paranoid, but as a mother, if it could happen to your own child, what do you do? I talked to the school about what was going on, but it was still very difficult to make that final call."

But at least Huang isn't feeling helpless. Her job allows her to keep tabs on the current outbreak. "I'm watching, very closely, and she's taken Tamiflu with her; I advised the school to tell all the students to take some. She also emails every day and I can make sure she's okay."

Now, you might be wondering whether any day job is worth all that worry, given how the rest of us seem quite happy in our ignorance of potential catastrophes. But for the likes of Huang - and paranoia is positively encouraged when you work somewhere breeding flu bugs - it's not only having to know which timebombs are ticking and where, there's also the intense pressure when the worst happens, as it did in 2009. We need her team to be fast, calm and spot-on.

"Yes, there is pressure, indeed, but knowing the things we do is still better than not knowing. We have confidence in what we do and we know that it is relevant, what we do can protect our families and the country. But I don't see influenza as the enemy, I'm often amazed that such a simple virus can find so many clever ways and strategies to keep alive. As hosts we are much more sophisticated and advanced beings, but the flu virus still manages to find a niche to cause havoc. I wish to understand all their strategies, so eventually we will have a means and a way to control it."

Which is more than Dr Jose Borrero can ever hope to achieve. As a tsunami scientist, his best result is keeping unstoppable mayhem to a minimum. And wouldn't you know it, he's a surfer, which may explain why he approaches his particular foe with more awe than fear.

"People don't realise how fragile human society is," he says from his Raglan home. "When you're hit by a natural disaster . . . it's a big, big force, something I don't think anyone can appreciate until they see it themselves."

Borrero was studying civil engineering at the University of Southern California when a professor stopped by looking for help with his new computer. A few months later, Borrero was part of his research group in Nicaragua.

Since 1995 he's investigated about 15 major tsunamis and the odd earthquake. By studying variables such as water movement, the aim is to make coastal regions better able to deal with such events.

He estimates there are about two moderate to major tsunamis every year; which makes it surprising that it wasn't until the 2004 Boxing Day disaster that the world was convinced of their danger. That's the power of video footage. Yet the initial live shots of the Japanese sequel in 2011 were still so outrageous they almost defied comprehension.

"Yeah," says Borrero, "but I don't go into work thinking, 'this is nightmarish'. I have to take a scientific view to everything and not get sentimental - I can't afford to, I have a job to do - but I can't help getting affected when I see people's lives torn apart like that. Then you have to remember that this stuff happens all over the world every day.

"But I wouldn't say I'm fatalistic, I'm more realistic . . . Shit happens."

At least it's not likely to happen if he's at home. His house is perched about 150m above sea level, and New Zealand's west coast is considered low-risk when it comes to tsunamis and earthquakes. Not that Borrera chose the location for safety reasons. "Not at all, I mean Gisborne is probably the most tsunami-prone city in the country, but I'd have no problem living there. The benefits of living on the coast always outweigh the risks, and most surf-rich areas have some degree of risk. But I'm not one for keeping an eye on the horizon while I'm surfing."

Besides, if anything starts shaking anywhere, he gets an email alert, which should give him plenty of time to find a good spot to watch - or pack his bags for his next long-haul flight.

His only quibble is that once he arrives and people find out what he does, tsunamis are all anyone wants to talk about. "I mean, the growing awareness is a good thing, and I do enjoy talking about them most of the time, but the subject does get a bit old sometimes."

Professor Lynette Ferguson's husband could be just the man to commiserate with Borrero. His wife deals with the genes and foods that cause cancer, and that's also knowledge that's impossible to leave at work.

In fact, she says it's got to the point that when she, her husband and son sit down for dinner, they'll all have cooked separately. Her husband wants his Kiwi tucker, she wants slow-cooked or steamed goodness, and they both cringe at the slop the boy dishes up for himself. What do they think of her culinary advice? "They just ignore me . . ."

Why? "I'd say I've become ultra-cautious about what I eat and buy," she says. "I'm an absolute pain in the supermarket, one of those ghastly women who looks at the fine print on everything and the balance of all the ingredients. I take ages, I'm quite paranoid about trying anything new."

To the point of rushing home to Google clinical reports on new products, especially supplements. It's one of the workplace hazards of teaching genetics that she's often the guinea pig. Demonstrating a multitude of such tests has exposed genetic foibles such as her dietary need for extra folate and her enzyme's slow metabolisation of caffeine. Which doesn't sound too bad at all, but it's pushed her to a daily regime that incorporates regular (clinically approved, obviously) supplements - including a gram of omega-3 (only the long chain DHA and EPA you get from oily fish, not the short stuff you get from flaxseed oil) - and a diet featuring plenty of spinach and kiwifruit, no coffee after 3pm, no sweets and no barbecued meat, ever; charred flesh is carcinogenic.

There's no guarantee such measures prevent cancer, but her efforts may at least slow any risk of future onset.

So Christmas Day is a big deal in the Ferguson household - it's the only day when all bets are off and she can rip into the roast potatoes, stuffing, turkey and gravy with aplomb. Otherwise her diet is strict and her sweet tooth is buried.

That's easy enough when she's at home but not so easy when, as often happens, she's overseas for work. Especially in the US. Not even Ferguson's Christmas waiver will allow sticky doughnuts for breakfast, and trying to find a healthy alternative can be daunting. "If I'm at a conference I'll find someone I know and meet up with them to share a meal. I'm intimidated by the size of American plates."

Obviously the good professor has sound reasons for her regime - you can't argue with your own science - but she also understands that those people already dealing with cancer hang on to everything.

Being taken far too literally can be the price of expertise. Ferguson has found that talking up broccoli can encourage some to eat nothing but for breakfast, lunch and dinner; then there are others who look to her to support their faith in reputed miracle cures such as shark cartilage. Who can blame them? There's no upside to cancer.

Or to pandemics and natural disasters for that matter.

- NZ Herald

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