As scientists report a new form of bird flu, it is time for the Christian church to prepare to engage more actively in the various aspects of a healing ministry over the long-term.

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

Scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that the bird flu virus, H5N1 has mutated and now appears in two genetically distinct forms.

The virus is still exclusively found among birds and there are still no firm indications that it will transfer to humans - even with the latest changes.

The mutation does, however, remind us just how quickly these viral diseases - especially flu - can move in new directions. All flu viruses mutate easily.

The BBC reports that the H5N1 strain has spread across Europe, Africa and parts of Asia and killed nearly 100 people worldwide and infected about 180 since it re-emerged in 2003.

Some scientists fear that this finding increases the risk to humans, which could result in a world-wide pandemic, and complicates the search for an effective vaccine.

The development of a vaccine can only move forward once the exact form of a pandemic virus is known.

The antidote for one strain may not cure another strain of the same virus, though it may offer at least partial protection.

In 1918-1919 Spanish flu swept the world. It wiped out 30 million people. SARS (severe atypical repertory syndrome) appeared in 2003 and sent shock waves around the world.

Scientists have long warned us that another virulent strain of flu could emerge at any time.

Futurist and physician Patrick Dixon says: 'Every time a new person is infected [with a virus] there is a small risk of a significant mutation. We have no medical protection against viral plague, no equivalent of penicillin for viruses...'

The BBC website quotes microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen University as saying, '[There is] no need to panic. The virus is still a bird virus, it is not yet a human virus, and it may never be a human virus.

'As long as we manage to keep it reasonably under control in the birds I think we can breathe relatively easily for at least a year or two.'

Nevertheless, over the next few years we can expect that finding cures for fast-mutating diseases will become a matter of human survival.

SARS and especially AIDS are two examples of how dangerous new viruses can become, in a short period of time.

Dr. Dixon reports that, '[With AIDS] we are seeing one new infection every 15 seconds... In 1996 more people died of AIDS in the US than in the entire ten year Vietnam war.'

The long search for a cure goes on.

As the world grapples to come to terms with potential new plagues, divine healing and health will once again become issues for the Christian church.

In the next few years, we can expect to see church teaching which will feature more on these subjects.

Healing services will become a larger feature of church calendars, across the denominational divide.

Like Jesus, churches which aim to serve will extend the Jubilee spirit beyond mere financial giving to cover human health.

People with sicknesses - even of the most dire kind - will be welcomed and the church will place great emphasis on prayer as the medium for miracles.

Being an agent of divine healing will not be the sole prerogative of gifted 'expert practitioners', but the right of every Christian who will stand together with others in faith.

Those with a special manifestation of this gift will equip the Body as a whole to minister healing in a humble and natural but authoritative way.

Many churches may go one step further, bringing back to church life a belief in the power of natural restoratives. They will not become dispensaries for pseudo-scientific 'cures', but places where people are given advice on proper diet, exercise and other factors which promote ongoing health.

Many churches will offer places of comfort - modern hospices, rather than hospitals - where the sick can be offered comfort, friendship and support.

For now, bird flu should not keep us awake at nights - except perhaps if you own a poultry farm.

Yet we should be prepared for what the future may hold with this or other potentially devastating viral epidemics. We should certainly hope that science will provide breakthroughs.

At the same time, though, we in the church should prepare ourselves to offer something more than medicines for the suffering or fearful.  CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.