… Webster’s statement is the latest Hitchcockian pronouncement about H5N1 bird flu, a virus that is deadly in birds. But humans are different. We are protected by a species barrier, and serological surveys conducted in 1997 in Hong Kong and since have detected antibodies in thousands of humans who never got sick, showing that bird flu isn’t as deadly to the few who come in contact with it as has been reported.
In fact, the growing immunity to H5N1 worldwide may lessen the outbreak in humans even if the dreaded mutation does occur. As time passes, the chances of this mutation appear less rather than more likely. (The Spanish flu, by comparison, mutated before killing a lot of birds.)
If H5N1 takes hold in pigs and exchanges genetic material with another flu virus, the result is likely to be far less deadly. The swine flu fiasco of 1976 is an example of the damage that can be done from fear of a mutated virus that can theoretically affect us. More than 1,000 cases of paralysis occurred from a rushed vaccine given to more than 40 million people in response to a pandemic that never came.
Why provoke the public to see a potential pandemic in end-of-the-world terms? A pandemic simply means people in several areas having a disease at the same time — but it may be hundreds rather than millions. The last flu pandemic, in 1968, killed 33,800 Americans, which is about the flu’s toll in an average year. We don’t need to panic in advance for that kind of pandemic.
Cooking poultry kills any flu 100 percent of the time, yet the fear of H5N1 bird flu is already so out of control in Europe that 46 countries have banned French poultry exports after a single turkey was found to be infected. France, fourth in the world in poultry exports, is already hemorrhaging more than $40 million a month.
Imagine what would happen if a bird in the United States gets H5N1 bird flu. At the rate we are going, the fear of birds will be so great that our own poultry industry, number one in the world, is likely to be in shambles. We already have this problem with mad cow disease, where a single sick cow that is not even in the food chain makes people very nervous, despite the fact that it is almost impossible to get mad cow disease from eating beef.
Flu is worthy of our concern. But concern can lead to long term preparation whereas panic can be far more virulent and costly than the bird flu itself.
Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine, is author of ”False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.”

The cost of bird flu hysteria