Should We Panic About Bird Flu?

GLOBAL - Worried about the H5N1 bird flu virus causing a pandemic? To go by the media, we should panic about bird flu. But study the scientific evidence and you can only conclude that the media scare is mostly hype...
calendar icon 5 April 2006
clock icon 11 minute read

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 25 to 50 million people - 2.5% and 5% of the world's population. If you believe fear-mongers writing for the world's media, the supposedly virulent H5N1 bird flu virus will cause another pandemic any day now. If it's as bad as 1918, 125 to 300 million will die. With 747s, instead of the more leisurely steamships of 1918, any pandemic will spread a lot faster today so the death toll could possibly reach a billion people.

A terrifying prospect, isn't it?

Should we panic about bird flu: A virus

But major differences - aside from 747s - between 1918 and now mean that the real chance of another 1918-style bird flu pandemic, while not zero, is pretty close. To start with, in 1918 scientists didn't even know what a virus was. They knew that the Spanish flu was caused by something smaller than bacteria - but until the 1940s no one could see or isolate a virus, let alone analyze one.

Today not only do we know what viruses are, we have developed some protection against them; and scientists can decode their genetic sequence. Secondly, the Spanish flu came out of the blue, so to speak. There was no warning - nor did anybody expect it. By the time people realized it was a pandemic, it had already spread worldwide.

Today, in contrast, everybody expects a pandemic to begin any day, and health authorities everywhere are already planning what to do. (Let's just hope their preparations will be more effective that their planning for catastrophes like hurricane Katrina!)

Should we panic about bird flu: SARS

But remember SARS? It appeared from nowhere in 2002. And who expected something like it? Not a soul. Yet, just days after it was first identified as a new and unknown disease, sufferers and their contacts were quarantined; travelers were screened - and so many people decided to stay at home that airlines like Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific suffered dramatic declines in passengers - and profits.

Within just a few weeks, SARS had been identified as a corona-virus, and soon thereafter its source was traced to civet cats in China's Guangdong province. SARS, while not as contagious as influenza, was pretty nasty just the same. Almost 10% of the people who caught it died. Ironically, though, so effective were the measures taken to isolate sufferers that over 20% of the people infected were doctors, nurses and other hospital staff - who caught it from patients!

This totally new, virulent but unknown and unexpected disease - spread around the world almost instantly by 747s - killed a total of 774 people. Thousands more people die from diseases like malaria and dengue fever every year.

Should we panic about bird flu: theoretical speculation

Unlike SARS and the Spanish flu, the world now expects a disastrous, world-wide influenza pandemic to happen any day. So everybody's watching for it. The moment someone catches the H5N1 virus from a bird, they're isolated. Birds carrying the virus are being culled in the millions - further reducing the chances of it mutating into something that can jump from human to human.

However, as the British Medical Journal put it in its October 29 issue:

"The lack of sustained human-to-human transmission suggested that this H5N1 virus does not currently have the capacity to cause a human pandemic," adding that the warnings are entirely a theoretical speculation.

Is there any evidence for this conclusion? To judge from the press, this H5N1 avian flu virus is something new. Maybe it isn't. What is certainly new is that every time someone catches it, it's on the front pages of the newspapers.

Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger - a molecular pathologist with the Armed Forces Institute of Technology in Washington, D.C. - led the research team that recently decoded the 1918 Spanish flu virus.

What they discovered: it was not H5N1 - or any other known avian flu virus. What's more, though definitely bird flu, it didn't originate in chickens, ducks or geese. In fact, nobody knows at the moment what bird it came from. As part of their research, Taubenberger and his team analyzed tissue samples from 25 preserved waterfowl, vintage around 1918, stored at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

They discovered that avian flu viruses those birds carried were identical to same variants found in birds today. In nearly a century, these viruses have hardly changed or evolved at all.

To people used to taking a flu shot every year - because last year's flu shot won't protect you against this year's flu - this may seem a surprising discovery. But human influenzas are continually evolving - as the virus gains resistance to each new medication. As birds don't take antibiotics, get flu shots or other medical cocktails, the viruses they carry don't need to change.

Should we panic about bird flu: 'A scare, not a pandemic'

The H5N1 avian flu virus is known to have been around since the late 1950's. For all we know, it's been infecting people for hundreds - if not thousands - of years. And in all that time, it has not caused a human pandemic. But only in 1997 did scientists actually discover it had infected humans. As a result, today every person this virus infects is religiously reported instead of being ignored - which turns it into a scare, but not a pandemic.

Not everyone agrees, as we'll see in a moment. But here's something else that's suggestive: until very recently, only severe cases of H5N1 infection have been studied by doctors and scientists: the people who end up in hospital at death's door, where nearly half of them die.

So we're given the impression - fostered by the scare-mongering media and scientists desperate for bigger government grants - that this is an incredibly deadly virus; one far worse than the Spanish flu.

A study published on January 9th in the Archives of Internal Medicine casts serious doubt on this conclusion. In a province near Hanoi, Vietnam, where 80% of residents keep chickens and H5N1 is rampant, 45,476 were randomly selected for a survey - 8,149 of them, or 17.9% - reported having had flu-like symptoms with a fever and a cough. And nearly two-thirds of them had direct contact with sick or dying birds.

While blood-testing needs to be done to confirm the hypothesis, it seems highly probable that the H5N1 strain of avian flu is very similar to the other viruses birds carry: capable of infecting humans but with very mild effects - indistinguishable from the common cold - when it does. Only a tiny percent of people infected react so badly they have to go to hospital. Until now, they were the only cases ever reported, so creating the unwarranted fear that H5N1 was exceptionally virulent.

Unfortunately, there is a very different bird flu danger. The H5 strain of viruses is just one of sixteen different virus groups birds carry around - rather like a flying "virus soup." As birds' immune systems are adapted to these viruses, they rarely get sick.

This is about to change.

Countries like China and Vietnam, which are among those killing millions of birds carrying this virus, are inoculating them as well. So the H5N1 virus - not to mention all the other viruses birds carry around with them - will soon gain resistance to current treatments (like Tamiflu).

Indeed, the New Scientist recently postulated that the H5N1 virus could well be the result of past inoculations of domestic fowl. While the latest evidence suggests they were wrong, there is no doubt that thanks to these inoculations H5N1 could easily evolve into an entirely new strain, already resistant to all known treatments.

If that happens, even if it doesn't jump to humans it could easily decimate the world's bird population. That said, it is possible that the H5N1 virus - or one of the other many such viruses birds carry with them - could jump to humans. After all, that's how both the "Asian flu" (1957-58) and "Hong Kong flu" (1968-69) got started. If that happens, what's the best protection?

The Spanish flu pandemic gives us the answer (and it's not Tamiflu).

Should we panic about bird flu: Quaratine laws

One of the countries least affected by the Spanish flu was a country that has long had exceptionally strict quarantine laws: Australia, but not as strict as American Samoa. As telegrams carried the news faster than steamships, American Samoa knew about the Spanish flu long before it arrived there. They simply closed their doors, and did not let any ships dock except under strict quarantine conditions. The number of deaths from Spanish flu in American Samoa: zero.

But the Spanish flu did hit Western Samoa, just a few miles away, where there was no quarantine: some 20% of the population died.

That SARS didn't turn into a pandemic is further proof of the effectiveness of quarantine in stopping a highly contagious disease in its tracks. So, provided any new strain of bird flu is spotted early - virtually certain given the current vigilance of the world's health authorities - it will be contained long before it can turn into a pandemic. Chances are, that's never going to happen. But even so, you can be sure that bird flu scares will be a staple of the world's press for many years to come.

Why? It's simple. Last year, the George W. Bush announced an "emergency" $7.1 billion program to combat the bird flu scare. Other governments around the world are setting up similar programs, though on a smaller scale. This means we have an entirely new scientific establishment funded by inexhaustible government money whose sole reason for existence is to find something that hasn't happened yet - and may never happen.

Should we panic about bird flu: Spin

To justify their existence and to get more of that lovely government green stuff, you can be sure that this new "government program" will do everything in its power to keep the bird flu scare alive. One way, is adopting the political techniques of "spin." For example, in an article published in Thursday's (23 March 2006) issue of Nature, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a researcher at the Universities of Tokyo and Wisconsin, wrote that one reason why the H5N1 virus hasn't spread from human to human is that it infects the bottom area of the lungs.

Other flu viruses prosper in the top of the lungs, so they're easily spread when people cough, and even breathe out. H5N1 doesn't have that "advantage." Nevertheless, he concludes that his findings suggest that we "may have more time to prepare for an eventual pandemic."

The three flu epidemics of the 20th century were caused by the H1, H2 and H3 series of bird flu viruses. All scientists agree that the H5N1 virus must go through many mutations before it can be spread by human-to-human contact. Not only does it infect the lowest part of the lungs, but it appears that the only way a human can get it from chickens is by close contact with lots of infected birds; the kind of thing that can happen when you sleep with them.

So here we have a virus, which: has never, as far as we know, spread from one human to another; is hard to get in the first place; if someone does have it, is not released easily by the lungs and to the extent it is, in tiny quantities compared with sleeping in a chicken coop; and has to go through a large number of unlikely mutations first in order to become a pandemic in humans. One of those mutations, presumably, will be to transfer its preference to the top of the lungs from the bottom, probably the least likely of all.

Given all these obstacles, is it science to conclude that it is only "a matter of time" before this virus causes a human pandemic? Or is this the sort of "prediction" you'd expect from government-funded politicized science where the prime imperative is not Truth but staying plugged-in to the government-drip machine?

And to stay plugged-in, to get the next government grant, you've got to follow the party line, which is: a bird flu pandemic is inevitable. As entrenched government programs are almost never axed, I expect to go on reading that "prediction" until the day I die...of natural causes.

Source: Mark Tier, The Daily Reckoning - 5th April 2006

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