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- 21 January 2006 at 11:41 am #3285
After the attention grabbing headline here, maybe time for a thread on H5N1 bird flu not being the major pandemic threat that so many would have us believe.
I used to think we were indeed on brink of something devastating, till contacted by science writer Wendy Orent, and read an article by her, arguing that natural selection goes against flu becoming highly virulent: 1918-1919 Spanish Flu was so bad as it evolved in First World War conditions. Wendy was drawing on ideas from, especially, Paul Ewald (see also thread here on evolutionary biology; as noted there, have been arguments to try and counter this, but none seem strong).
Now, seeing rather more articles that suggest risks have been overplayed.
For instance, Mayor pours cold water over bird flu, From New Zealand, includes:Quote:He has a PHD, he’s a mayor and a member of health board, and he says we could be spending our money on better things than bird flu campaigns.
And as the Ministry of Health launches one of those campaigns, Malcom MacPherson has launched his own.
“We’re getting ourselves really excited about an event that’s just fiction,” Macpherson says.
Dr MacPherson may not be a medical doctor, but he does have a PHD in science, and as well as being mayor he’s a member of the Otago District Health Board.
“People are genuinely buying survival kits, they’re genuinely not travelling overseas, they’re not buying chicken at their supermarkets for goodness sake there’s no need for it,” MacPherson says.
No need for it, he says, because it has been hyped up by those with vested interests – like the drug companies and the media.
“There’s no evidence anywhere in the world that I’ve seen yet that this thing has transferred person to person,” says MacPherson.
“It’s really difficult to catch it from a bird, you’ve got to be in Turkey or China or somewhere like that and bite the head off the chicken frankly to catch this,” he says.
Article appearing first in Straits Times, Bird Flu: A Lesser Killer Than Touted? includes:Quote:This means that hundreds to thousands of people may already have been infected and have developed just mild symptoms not requiring hospitalisation. As such, they fail to appear in official figures.
This notion, however, is directly opposed to the stand which the World Health Organisation (WHO) takes that transmission of H5N1 from birds to humans (and from human to human) is rare, so rare that there have only been just 148 human cases worldwide, of whom 79 have died.
Is the unorthodox view–that bird flu in humans is more common than the WHO thinks–bereft of further support?
Not at all. In fact, there has always been suggestive evidence that contradicted the WHO stand, though little attention has been paid to such data, probably out of deference to the world health agency.
If the bug’s kill rate is much less than 53%–given the official WHO tally of 78 deaths out of 147 confirmed cases–then many people may be infected in a pandemic but most may just come down with a mild illness. That is, far fewer will perish than current projections say.
Perhaps, the public posturing of the WHO is just a well intentioned way to keep governments on their toes.
Here’s a letter that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in November:Quote:Bird flu hysteria
Once again, President Bush is misinforming the American public:
(1) There is no effective vaccine against bird flu — the cornerstone of Bush’s “plan”;
(2) There is no proven therapy either. Tamiflu is a drug of no proven value in bird flu;
(3) There is no proof that the present bird flu virus can be transmitted from person to person. Right now, it is an infection of birds that can be transmitted from very sick birds to humans who handle them or eat them.
It is time to stop misinforming the public and time to stop fanning mass hysteria.
DANIEL HOLLANDER MD
Professor of Medicine, UCLA21 January 2006 at 11:57 am #4010
Tongue-in-cheek commentary in Huffington Post, Bill Robinson: The Bird Flu Is A Cock-Tease includes:Quote:I am totally disappointed in the bird flu. And I’m not the only one. The fear-based 24 hour news networks, not to mention the Bush administration, are enraged they have nothing to scare us with at the moment. No credible terrorist threats, no escaped inmates, no missing cheerleaders in Aruba. So they have great hopes for the H5N1 virus… what better way to create Must-See-CNN, or a helpless, childlike devotion to our Big Brother Government?
But Dr. Sanjay Gupta is looking worried these days. His bleached smile just isn’t as wide. Why? The damn thing isn’t mutating. Sure, it’s killed about 70 people… but for a virus that’s been around for 9 years, that ain’t saying much. By way of comparison, more people were killed by police stun guns during that time, more people died at the hands of Australia’s Dr. Patel (aka Dr. Death!), and, of course, more Americans die in a typical month in Iraq.
Obviously, the threat (code Orange, anyone?) is in the possibility of a sudden pandemic, which we’re repeatedly told we’re “overdue” for. The problem is, we’re not. Deadly pandemics seem to obey the same rules as roulette– your number doesn’t have to come up once every “cycle.” And the government’s no better at predicting them than they are at tsunamis or earthquakes. They’re better at forecasting hurricanes… even if they lose a major city every now and then.
In May, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the virus that causes bird flu “could become one of the most terrible threats to life that this world has ever faced.” That was 8 years after the virus was detected, but apparently May, 2005 is when Mike got the memo. Since that time, billions of dollars for pharmaceuticals and vaccines have been pledged by international governments, always deferring to the Americans– the ” CDC’s projections.”
Funny thing about projections– they’re notoriously wrong. In 1997, the same year the bird flu virus was discovered, a leading UK research group projected that vCJD, the human form of mad cow disease, would kill up to 10 million people. In 2002 they revised that downwards to 50,000. More recently, ummmm….. 80. And that’s over the next 75 years. Probably didn’t catch that story on Rita Cosby.
None of this is to minimize the 70 or so people who have died from this awful virus. But as Beverly Hills housewives are hording Tamiflu, it might be helpful to keep in mind those 70 people were living in developing countries, where poultry and pigs are literally raised in the house.
Of course, none of that is what TV networks want us to hear. They need us locked in the anxiety spiral, eager to consume whatever soothing product is advertised during the commercial break–perhaps an antidepressant or sleeping aide, brought to you by the company making the non-existent vaccine for the bird flu. Follow the money, wasn’t that the phrase?
As Wolf Blitzer anxiously stands before his 10 (live!) plasma screens in “The Situation Room”, like the host of a telethon waiting for someone to invent the disease, you can practically hear the desperation in his voice for this lame-ass virus to do something other than kill turkeys in Turkey. He’s acutely aware another Y2K would be bad for business.
If there’s any silver lining to the rabid marketing of the bird flu, it’s this: If you really want something to be terrified of, just take a look around. You’ve already got it.
Post edited by: martin, at: 2006/01/21 04:0523 January 2006 at 9:35 am #4011
From NZ Herald:Quote:The government’s preparations for a possible outbreak of bird flu are being panned as being completely over the top.
This week the Ministry of Health began distributing leaflets explaining how New Zealanders should prepare for a possible pandemic.
It is already stockpiling shots of the ant-viral drug Tamiflu.
But Macquarie University professor Peter Curson, from Australia, said New Zealand is getting into a flap over nothing.
He said the government is reacting to something that is very unlikely to happen.
Peter Curson said the country would be better off declaring a pandemic of some the real health problems it has, like diabetes and obesity.
Post edited by: martin, at: 2006/01/23 01:3924 January 2006 at 11:49 am #4012
Editorial January 23: The Bird Flu Flap concludes:Quote:Heed the warnings, but don’t take them too seriously. There are other more pressing problems for us to worry about. However, if you do feel the urge to follow the Government’s premature survival tips, perhaps rather than packing a new survival kit it may just be easier to cheat a bit – drag out the one you prepared in 1999 for the Y2K bug.2 February 2006 at 5:35 pm #4013Quote:Researchers and health agencies continue to sound the alarm about avian flu, and Dr. Gary Butcher, an expert on poultry medicine and disease at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine thinks he knows why.
“The agenda here is pretty obvious,” he said. “People want grant money. This is a bonanza.”
Butcher, who advises agricultural ministries and poultry companies around the world, is Florida’s lone poultry veterinarian. He has also emerged as a leading naysayer on the prospects for a avian flu pandemic.
Butcher insists the likelihood that the H5N1 avian flu virus in Asia will trigger a pandemic is practically nil. But the fear-mongering will continue, he said, as long as people see a potential for financial and career gain in it.
“This is a full-on war against agriculture,” Butcher said – and he is firing back.
“The threat is basically zero,” he said. “We’re spending all of our attention on this [virus], and another one may sneak up on us.”
The WHO’s Web site also warns that the H5N1 avian flu has killed half of the people it has infected. That’s true, Butcher said, but given the fact that the virus has only infected roughly 130 people, that 50 percent statistic paints a misleading picture. [note: this is of people known to have been infected; cf ideas many infected without much illness]
“The guy who wrote this really wants to make this sound like a big thing,” Butcher said, reading through the WHO’s “frequently asked questions” about avian flu.
“Dr. Butcher is certainly entitled to his opinion,” WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said in an e-mailed response. “We clearly do not share it.”
The veterinarian reserved some of his harshest criticism for the USDA, which he believes is overstating the threat to justify its intensifying bird surveillance programs and gain funding and influence.
“They’re trying to keep [avian flu] in the spotlight,” he said.
“Everyone’s keeping it in the spotlight,” said Madelaine Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service division of the USDA.
Butcher’s perspective is not only that of an academic expert, but that of an industry consultant. When he is not teaching and researching in Gainesville, Butcher often travels to Panama, Russia, Ecuador, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries, advising governments and poultry companies whose survival and profits are threatened by public fears of bird flu.
In his travels, he said, he sees the evidence of serious economic harm caused by misplaced fear. “Poultry consumption is down 50 percent in Europe,” he said. “It’s a disaster.”
But Butcher remains troubled. “I don’t think people understand the effect its had on economies, industries and even the mental health of people around the world,” he said. “It’s prudent to be prepared, but it’s not prudent to inspire this overreaction.”4 February 2006 at 8:06 am #4014Anonymous
19 January 2006 sent to South China Morning Post
Ducking the issue
By Tony Henderson, chairman, Humanist Association of Hong Kong
A Hong Kong without ducks would be like Tibet without snow. Yet your indefatigable writer Kevin Sinclair wants them outlawed (Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2006)! I have no evidence to the contrary but something just tells me outlawing ducks is ‘quacking up the wrong tree’. Bird Flue is a flue inherent in birds, thus its name, and of course wild birds carry the bug and their weaker domesticated cousins are especially susceptible to that bug developing into a problem – for them.
That humans could catch that strain of flue is a distant possibility. But if that is the way the evolutionary currents are moving then we humans had better take it into account as we build our future. We will not benefit by shooting the duck but by better farming practices and ourselves better accommodating that bug by our human race including its antidote in our genetic makeup, thus making it part of our immune system’s arsenal.
We can do this by spreading the popularity of keeping ducks, chickens, pigeons, guinea fowl, geese and so on as useful additions to our life – not in public housing estates though – pigeons on those estate’s roof gardens are fine…
We must not encapsulate ourselves away from relatively benign contagion as then our bodies will not be able to fight the real aliens – the completely new virus. We must not flee experiences that in the end strengthen us spiritually, mentally and physically and our entire human race.
People are today ‘alarmed’ (sic) because of these daft reports. Those public personalities that are gunning for regulating ducks into oblivion are not farmers or gardeners, rather desk-bound grey people who have strayed far from the realities of life. The medicines industry (not the medical fraternity) are all set to make their own killing selling vaccines and getting World Bank loans to do that.
We will see those international institutions taking their quack solutions into undeveloped nations using their ill-gained international cash – mini-buses and high salaried jobs for the Boys locally with real profits going to Europe and the US internationally – given with the usual strings attached. The result will further reduce the effectiveness of those receiving country’s micro-economic systems and self-sufficient norms and add more victims to the ranks of the poor.
A duck, flying as it does very high, has a wider view of these things. By just being a duck, plain and simple, it offers the human race salvation. Let’s not denigrate the duck, rather see it in its rightful place among all the other useful creatures this fair earth.3 March 2006 at 9:42 am #4015Quote:While the spread of the H5N1 virus to Europe is a serious issue for farming and wildlife, it presents a negligible threat to human health that should not worry the public, Professor Sir David King told The Times.
experience of the disease in Asian countries suggests that individuals are about seven times more likely to win the national lottery than they are to contract bird flu.
In China, where the disease is endemic among birds, just 14 infections and 8 deaths have been confirmed by the World Health Organisation in a population of 1.3 billion people — a rate of one case per 93 million and one death per 163 million.
This suggests that the current form of the virus is so difficult for humans to catch that the risk will remain extremely remote even if it infects British birds, as is likely now it has spread to France and Germany.
Britain’s population is 60 million, making even a single case unlikely at these odds.
Speaking exclusively to The Times, Sir David said that the public health threat from the virus had been widely exaggerated, and confused with the danger it posed to the poultry industry.
“It is very important to keep things in proportion, and to make a distinction between the virus in birds and the virus in humans,” he said.
“Your chances of winning the lottery are about 1 in 14 million. Your chances of catching bird flu are more like 1 in 100 million, even if we had H5N1 among the chicken population in Britain.
“That’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on China, but the real figure will not be much different. It may in fact be even lower than 1 in 100 million, because we don’t live cheek-by-jowl with chickens in the same way. Simply put, this is not an issue we should worry about in terms of public health.”
From a human health point of view, he is more concerned about the spread of H5N1 into Africa, where cases have now been confirmed in birds in Egypt, Nigeria and Niger.
These developing countries lack the resources to contain the disease, and have backyard poultry flocks similar to those found in the Far East, which expose large numbers of people to the virus. This creates potential crucibles for genetic mutations that could allow the virus to start spreading from person to person, a critical event for a pandemic.
His comments were backed by Neil Ferguson, Professor of Mathematical Biology at Imperial College, London, one of the world’s leading influenza epidemiologists. He said that the risk of human cases in Britain was “absolutely negligible”.
“There have been about 150 infections in South-East Asia and China, and the population size of the heavily affected region is around the 300 to 400 million mark,” Professor Ferguson said. “Whether it is 1 in 100 million or 1 in 10 million, it is a very small risk. … The risk is absolutely negligible, though convincing people of that is difficult because H5N1 has now acquired a rather mythological status.”
Susanne Glasmacher, of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, which leads Germany’s bird flu containment efforts, would not estimate the risk of human infections in the country, where 136 dead birds and a cat carrying H5N1 have been found. Any risk, however, is likely to be lower than in Asia. “The virus in Asia was passed on overwhelmingly to poultry farmers and those living in very close daily contact with birds,” Dr Glasmacher said. “In Germany we have different lifestyles.”17 March 2006 at 4:38 pm #4016Quote:… 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.”23 March 2006 at 3:16 pm #4017Quote:Researchers have suggested why the H5N1 bird flu virus has so far been inefficient at infecting people and unable to spread between them.
In papers published tomorrow (23 March) by Nature and Science, they say the virus may be physically unable to reach vulnerable cells deep inside human lungs.
Although H5N1 is very good at spreading through large populations of birds, it has infected fewer than 200 people since 2003.
this week’s findings show that the virus is rarely able to attach to cells in the upper respiratory tract.
What’s more, it seems that mucus could be trapping the virus, which is then expelled before it can replicate, says Thijs Kuiken of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands.
While H5N1 cannot enter cells close to the nose and mouth, both Kuiken’s team and another led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, found cells deep inside the human lungs that the H5N1 virus can bind to — if it is able to get that far.
This fits neatly with observations made during autopsies of people killed by the virus: that most damage was deep in lung tissue…10 April 2006 at 9:06 am #4018
According to Sir David King, telling the world that a global flu pandemic is inevitable is totally misleading. Sir David said the likelihood of the H5N1 virus mutating into a human-transmissible virus is very low.
“We have got a virus in the bird population that has gone on since 1996, and in Asia particularly there has been a lot of contact between human beings and the birds that have got that virus. Despite this, the human virus has not developed.”
Sir David added that he was fairly optimistic that bird flu was not present in wild birds (in UK). According to him, one swan in Scotland does not necessarily mean the virus has come to stay. He stressed that H5N1 is not present at all among farmed birds in the UK (poultry farms).
A recent study explained why humans cannot become easily infected with the H5N1 virus.
For the virus to make a person sick it has to reach deep down in the lungs – a very difficult task (for the virus). Most human flu viruses infect the upper-respiratory tract. H5N1 infects deep down in the lower-respiratory tract. For people to become sick, they need to surround themselves with a huge number of bird flu viruses so that some of them manage to make their way down into the lower-respiratory tract. For that to happen, you have to spend a long time in the presence of sick birds, handling them.
If a H5N1 infected person coughs or sneezes, hardly any of the viruses are expelled (because they are so deep down). That is why it is virtually impossible for one human to make another one ill with bird flu.
For the virus to spread easily among humans, it needs to change (mutate) so that it infects the upper-respiratory tract (nearer the throat). However, if it does this, because it would located further up, it would be much easier to treat.21 April 2006 at 8:25 am #4019
MSNBC article on some people saying bird flu fears exaggerated includes:Quote:Wendy Orent, an anthropologist and author of “Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease.”… said public health officials have vastly exaggerated the potential danger of bird flu.
Several factors make it unlikely that bird flu will become a dangerous pandemic, Orent said: the virus, H5N1, is still several mutations away from being able to spread easily between people; and the virus generally attaches to the deepest part of the lungs, making it harder to transmit by coughing or breathing.
“We don’t have anything that makes us think this bug will go pandemic,” Orent said.
Flu virologist Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, a microbiology professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, agrees that all the focus on H5N1 may be unhealthy. As part of the team of scientists who recreated the deadly 1918 flu strain, he’s glad people are paying more attention to flu but thinks the level of worry is a bit too high. If this avian flu doesn’t turn into a pandemic, he wonders, will all these new flu-fighting measures be tossed aside?
“Focusing only on H5N1 … I think is a little bit shortsighted,” Garcia-Sastre said.
Public health officials always have to walk a fine line when sounding the alarm, said risk communications expert Peter Sandman, of Princeton, N.J., a consultant to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Defense. Bird flu is a tough case because it’s both scary and unlikely. People see-saw between overreacting because the potential threat is horrific, and under-reacting because the threat is also unlikely.
“When you look at a risk that’s horrific but not likely, it’s hard to know how to think about it,” Sandman said.
Sandman said public health officials need to do a better job of communicating the uncertainty around bird flu — as Fauci seemed to be attempting this week.
“It’s unfair and dishonest to make it sound like we’re sure H5N1 is coming soon and it’s going to kill half the population,” Sandman said. “It’s equally irresponsible to say, because only a hundred people have died, it’s not a biggie. It’s potentially very scary, but potentially is only potentially.”
Vocabulary is part of the problem, Sandman said. The term “bird flu” is used for the virus that is now killing birds — and has infected nearly 200 people who came into very close contact with birds. And it’s also being used to describe a mutated virus — which hasn’t yet emerged — that would spread easily among humans.
Sandman stressed that the current “bird flu” that kills birds is not the same as the potential “bird flu” that could cause a deadly pandemic.
“Chicken isn’t a problem,” he explained. “The big problem is the risk of mutation, at which point I’m at risk from the subway seat you sat on, or the doorknob you pulled open. After the mutation happens we should both be more afraid of doorknobs than chicken. Before the mutation, we shouldn’t be afraid of doorknobs or chickens.”
– on MSNBC, where another article included Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Bethesda, Md. saying:Quote:You can’t put a quantitative number on what the chance is that this H5N1 is going to be a catastrophe. The complexity of things for this to happen is multifaceted and very complex. [A pandemic] is not necessarily going to be caused by the H5N1 virus. H5N1 may not, in fact, go anywhere and just dead-end itself.
And yes, this is the same Anthony Fauci who last September was quoted in article Government Official Says Bird Flu Spread “A Time Bomb Waiting to Go Off”21 April 2006 at 10:01 pm #4020
Is there a minor trend away from the hysteria? Forbes now:Quote:As the Bush administration puts the final touches on a massive response plan for a potential avian flu pandemic, experts — including top-level administration officials — are predicting that if and when the avian flu reaches American shores, it’s not likely to be the disaster most once feared. "It is impossible to predict whether we’re going to have an H5N1 [the current strain of avian flu] pandemic and, if so, how severe it’s going to be," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told HealthDay. …
That sentiment was echoed by Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Speaking to attendees at a recent meeting in Tacoma, Wash., she said "there is no evidence it [bird flu] will be the next pandemic." ,,, Dr. Marc Siegel, author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear and a clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City, said, "There’s a complete psychosis here." "The whole problem with the topic is the blurring of the distinction between birds and people. I’d be worried if I was a bird — maybe. But not even all birds should be worried," Siegel said. The current H5N1 virus has generated more fear than normal because of its virulence and ease of transmission among flocks of domestic birds, said Dr. Alan I. Hartstein, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. …
"Any influenza virus that can cause a pandemic must gain the ability to be easily transmitted from person to person," said Hartstein. "Thus far, the H5N1 viruses do not have this capability and cannot cause a pandemic." …
U.S. Bird Flu Threat May Be Overstated, Experts Say
Interesting re Julie Gerberding. In February last year:Quote:The nation’s top disease-control official proclaimed in a speech in Washington, DC, today that avian influenza is the single biggest threat the world faces right now, according to wire service reports. Reuters quoted Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as saying, "This is a very ominous situation for the globe" and that it is "the most important threat we are facing right now."Quote:Right now, the H5N1 avian flu is primarily a problem for birds. It is not a pandemic and there is no evidence at the current time that it will ever be a pandemic but we have to be prepared.23 May 2006 at 6:47 pm #4021Quote: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
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