Saturday, October 08, 2005

Pandemic Flu Awareness Week

Another cogent argument from Dr. Ralph Faggotter of Healthy Skepticism in Australia.

This was in response to a message I sent to our listserv letting everyone know that Oct 3 – 9 is Pandemic Flu Awareness Week (this is not a spoof but an earnest effort by a group of very concerned citizens to help us prepare for the potential crisis.)

Dr. Faggotter wrote:

Every now and then the Media goes into a collective feeding frenzy over an issue which is entirely imaginary. (Think Saddam's WMDs). (On the other hand, the Media often fails to report on monumentally significant real events such as the collapse of the Larsen B ice-shelf in 2002 which was one of the most important events of the last 14,000 years and scarcely rated a mention in the mainstream media).

One such imaginary event is the 'Bird Flu Pandemic'. Type 'Bird Flu Pandemic' into Google and you will come up with 1/2 a million hits. Now the skeptically inclined might be wondering what this is all about.


The Avian Flu Virus lives in its Avian hosts as it has done for centuries. Every now and then a human is accidentally cross-infected. At the same time every creature on earth from the size of bacteria upwards is in the same position.

Think of the millions of viruses which live in the bacteria which live in our tummies. There are millions of different viruses out there which have non-humans as their natural hosts but which can potentially jump across to humans or other species on occasion. But the very factors which make a virus well adapted to one host are likely to make it poorly adapted to another host. This is why viral infections in humans, where humans are not the natural host, tend to fizzle out rather than spread (with some notable exceptions).

In order for the Avian Flu Virus to cause a serious pandemic in the human population it would have to undergo some serious evolution. It would have to learn how to be spread by aerosol droplets rather than excreta, and how to transmit from human to human without losing its infectivity or virulence.

This is a big ask. Sure it could happen soon, but more likely it will happen long after we are all dead from other more probable causes which we failed to notice because we were too busy jumping at shadows.

The skeptic always likes to ask- "Who stands to benefit from all this publicity?" The beneficiaries can be loosely divided into 4 groups-

  • The Media- which thrives on hype and fear.
  • Governments- which can divert attention away from their failings and expand their powers by appearing to be 'seizing the initiative'.
  • Pharmaceutical companies- which manufacture anti-viral agents and vaccines.
  • Academics, researchers and 'public health experts'- who are looking for funds for their work.

2 Comments:

Blogger DemFromCT said...

Yep. Worrying about a category 5 hurricane in 2004 was a waste of time, too, unless, of course, you live in New Orleans. There, folks did worry about it, but no one took them seriously, to a goodly amout of regret today.

The media is certainly into hype. but the threat is very real... just check the WHO or CDC pages to see for your self. There's plenty of skepticism, but it really seems there's two kinds.

There's the healthy skepticism of those who suggest the media hype is overblown (prolly true). That, however, doesn't preclude those who should be planning (the Feds, WHO, CDC etc.) from planning. Note, however, that these folks are the very ones who are most nervous.

Then there are the folks who simply doubt such a thing could happen at all. Some of them are relatively well educated on the topic, but married to theories that simply don't allow for such a thing... even though none of the experts on the other side are claiming something is imminant... just possible and should be planned for.

In fact, the very planning, which includes discussion of billions spent, martial law considered, etc behooves all of us to pay attention and follow this closely. Not every move the government makes will be the right one. But to do no planning at all seems rather rediculous and short-sighted based on what we know. Transparency is what's called for, not inaction.

The next pandemic might be 1968-style, not 1918. But that would be bad enough to plan for. And reinforcing our public health system is a good, not a bad idea.

October 08, 2005  
Blogger DemFromCT said...

P.S. from the NY Times:

"But scientists say that although the threat from the current avian virus is real, it is probably not immediate.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a bird flu pandemic was unlikely this year.

"How unlikely, I can't quantitate it," Dr. Fauci said. But, he added, "You must prepare for the worst-case scenario. To do anything less would be irresponsible."

"I would not say it's imminent or inevitable," said Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, chief of the molecular pathology department at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. "I think in the future there will be a pandemic." But, he said, whether that pandemic will be bird flu or another type, no one can say."

Prior to the hype, nothing at all was being done. I agree with Fauci... to do nothing is irresponsible. So maybe something good will come of this.

October 08, 2005  

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