By TODD ACKERMAN For months, the warnings have been relentless: Bird flu could jump species and kill tens of millions of people, a pandemic to rival the 1918 Spanish flu. Economies would collapse and governments risk catastrophe if they don’t put together elaborate contingency plans. Not everyone is convinced, however. A small group of skeptics says the warnings are just a lot of hype, scare talk that does more harm than good to the public health.

Such doomsday predictions go well beyond good science and siphon money and attention from more important threats, they say. "It’s a great story, a disease that can wipe out mankind as we know it," says Dr. Gary Butcher, a University of Florida veterinarian specializing in avian diseases. "Fortunately, the facts are contrary to what’s being reported. This disease is going to fizzle out, be forgotten in the near future and be replaced by another ‘potential worldwide threat.’ "

That view may have received a boost last week when the United Nations’ chief pandemic flu coordinator confirmed that the flu virus known as H5N1 largely has been contained in the Asian countries where it first hit. … Contrarians such as Butcher say it’s all a bit much, considering that some experts doubt the current lethal form of the virus will ever jump to humans . They also note that the three pandemics of the last century claimed successively fewer lives. The last, in 1968, killed 34,000 people, fewer than the number who succumb each year to seasonal flu. Bird flu, they argue, is just the latest in a line of overhyped scares that include anthrax, West Nile virus, smallpox and SARS, which taken together claim a mere fraction of the lives lost every year to, say, pneumonia.

The skeptics warn of the dangers of overreaction, citing 1976’s swine flu debacle, when more than 40 million people received a vaccine against a new pig virus that, ultimately, never took hold. The virus killed one person, a military recruit whose speedy death ignited the crash program. But as many as 1,000 people who were inoculated developed a paralyzing nerve condition; 32 died. The public relations nightmare and lawsuits against the government helped drive many drug companies away from making flu vaccines at all. …

But Paul Ewald, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Louisville, said such pathogens would lose their virulence, a law of natural selection ignored by those who fear the worst-case scenarios. "Everything we know about evolution says pathogens have to become more mild to keep their host mobile," Ewald said. "If they’re so virulent the host can’t pass them on, they don’t survive." The exception, he said, occurs in "disease factories" — environments where people immobilized by illness can easily transmit a virulent pathogen to new hosts — which is what happened on World War I’s Western Front with the Spanish flu. Hospitals, trains and trenches packed with deathly ill and healthy soldiers facilitated the disease’s lethal spread. …

Some critics see a different "agenda" behind the public concern about bird flu — funding. Butcher says President Bush’s $7.1 billion flu pandemic plan means a bonanza of grant money for researchers and the justification of the budgets and existence of agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Health Organization. …

"I’m concerned that the public discussion about bird flu, the new bug du jour, is so weighted with end-of-the-world terms that it’s causing a kind of hysteria," said Siegel, author of Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic. "The greatest problem isn’t influenza — it’s fear of influenza."

As the dire predictions of a pandemic mount, skeptics warn of the dangers of overreaction Some don’t buy bird flu threat