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CNN documentary Unseen Enemy is terrifying look at human vulnerability in face of pandemics

A Zika baby in Brazil, one of many facing a troubled and uncertain future

On CNN tonight, director Janet Tobias’s chilling documentary Unseen Enemy is a sobering wake-up call — as we learn about the looming potential crises of diseases like Ebola and Zika, as well as things that might seem common, like the flu.

SARS, Zika, AIDS, bird flu, MERS, Ebola; all words which spark fear and panic worldwide.

The documentary examines the insidious biological chatter of viruses which can lead to them staying one step ahead of technology with their cunning.

Viral pandemics pop up rapidly thanks to a mix of global mobility, poverty and the problems of hygiene as more people live in tight, crowded conditions.

For a virus, this is heaven.

Unseen Enemy is narrated by actor Jeffrey Wright and executive produced by Amy Entelis and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. it offers a large group of international experts who give us plain facts, and it is terrifying.

Fear spreads quickly as infections rage.  This hampers the work of those trying to stop it.

Tobias embedded with some of the world’s top pathogen hunters and medical professionals for more than three years, covering the planet to track outbreaks of Zika, Ebola, and influenza.

We go to Africa with Dr. Soka Moses, who is treating Ebola patients in Liberia, and then over to Brazil with doctors who explain their methodology when carrying out hazardous work at the front lines of outbreaks.

Dr. Moses wears a GoPro as he tours his overcrowded Ebola clinic where death is at every turn

In Liberia, Dr. Moses explains how his 2014 work with Ebola victims was done as warfare and chaos ruled in the city of Monrovia.

His clinic was swamped with Ebola victims dying right in front of him. Warning: This footage is graphic and will shock you in the scope of the massive pile of near-dead and dead bodies awaiting to be burned and buried.

The man who discovered Ebola, Dr. Peter Piot, is interviewed by CNN and he stresses it is a “mega-crisis” and a true danger to modern humanity.

With a case fatality rate of over 90 per cent, Dr. Piot discusses the perfect storm of conditions and health indicators that make Africa ground zero for Ebola.

Dr. Piot explains to CNN how Ebola acts and how to contain it

“Nearly all new viruses come from animals,” Dr. Piot says as he lays out the detective work done to figure out the origins of the virus.

Fruit-eating bats soon became suspect. Intermediate hosts like primates get the pathogens from them and cause the virus to mutate again. Then the virus becomes ready to invade humanity.

The doctor drives home that we humans are driving changes in the microbial world.

We do this via climate change, chemical pollution, mass farming, population explosion, and encroachment on animal habitats, and it boomerangs back to us in the form of these unforgiving pandemics.

Zika has traveled the world and it is shown how it jumped from the South Pacific to Brazil in 2013.

Experts surmise that a person from the South Pacific, already carrying Zika, was bitten by a mosquito which captured the virus and then spread it — the nexus for the entire Zika explosion that migrated up into the USA.

This virus is one of the most nefarious in that it is spread via sexual contact and also by mosquito bites, literally feeding on babies’ brain cells. It is devastating and incurable.

We then head north to visit Owatonna, Minnesota, where a flu outbreak levels the town.

A grieving family who lost a daughter, Shannon, shares how this vivacious teen who came home from school complaining of feeling flu-like went south at incredible speed.

Taken to the emergency room, they waited and waited as others had the flu too. She died later that night.

Shannon’s black Labrador dog waits and watches where she laid last in the family’s home.

Shannon's dog lays in wait for her, but she is gone forever
Shannon’s dog lays in wait for her, but she is gone forever

Flu is one of the biggest killers, of children too. At least 200,000 people die from it annually. Weak immune systems, diabetics, pregnancy, and age — young and old — the seasonal flu is a relentless killer.

Experts express fear a new strain of flu, one that no one will have immunity against, is poised to rage.

Dr. Mark Smolinski talks about airborne pathogens and how they spread. He says: “Most people become infectious with the flu before they even have symptoms.”

State and county fairs are shown to be hotbeds for swine flu, which became the most common shared infection on earth during the 2009 pandemic.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu is also a big new threat, as it is spreading rapidly among poultry.

Most at risk are Asian countries where they sell chickens in open markets alive and then kill the bird there as they clean them, so the customer can take them home.

It is how they deal with the viscera (guts) and waste that is the problem, with the dirty water being reused.

Chicken in Asian markets is a hotbed for pathogens

Water samples taken from widespread Asian markets all over the continent have tested positive for the virus.

The biggest problem is that many countries where unsanitary conditions flourish are poor, with porous borders and few regulations — meaning pathogens can easily spread across borders.

Epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant recounts his work with Smallpox in India, before it was eradicated in 1980, where his medical sleuthing revealed a ground zero of infection.

Strategy and enforcing a closure of the railroad station and enacting a quarantine finally eliminated the huge outbreak.

A photo from Dr. Brilliant’s Indian Smallpox work

But the disease came back. It was a remote tribe of Indians — who refused to take the vaccine for religious reasons — who kept spreading the disease.

In what many today would view as an outrageous overstepping of government boundaries, Brilliant talks about how they used police and government forces to enforce vaccination.

He says: “After we had broken into their houses and forcibly vaccinated them…” then describes how an elderly villager told him he was angry but understood that their actions were for the good of his people. Smallpox is the only human infectious disease ever to have been eradicated.

Clinical management and the containment of fear are two big jobs that epidemiologists must perform. Massive quarantines can be undermined by wholesale panic. Panic leads to violence. Violence leads to a breach in the quarantine and puts healthy people at risk.

This is a must-see documentary that serves as an education and a warning. It offers a complete whole Earth understanding of how we are all organisms with a finite life, from microscopic viruses to the largest mammals, including us humans.

How we want to die most times will not be up to us to decide, but we can mitigate unnecessary pandemic viral outbreaks with education and more respect for the planet and natural ecosystems, while living healthier lives.

Review rating: 5/5

Unseen Enemy premieres Friday, April 7, at 10pm ET, 11pm PT, with repeats on Saturday, April 8 at 2am ET, 3am PT, and Saturday April 15 at 9pm ET, 10pm ET, and 11pm ET, 12am PT. Each airing will be followed by a 15-minute special discussion about pandemic threats and preparedness with Dr Sanjay Gupta, filmmaker Janet Tobias, and Dr. Anthony Fauci (director, National Institutes of Health: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), hosted by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.


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