Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bird Flu Droppings

Public health officials and politicians world wide are fostering and exploiting fear of Asian bird flu virus A(H5N1) as a justification for enhancing influenza defenses generally, as noted in this article:

Some 400 animal and health experts meeting at the World Health Organization in Geneva want to build up regional stockpiles of antiviral drugs to counter a possible pandemic virus that could travel around the world in 3-4 months. .... Margaret Chan, the top WHO pandemic official, said the global health agency was in talks with drug makers and looking into the logistics of how to deliver the treatments. "We have taken up the challenge," she said. The global health agency already has a stockpile of 3 million antivirals that can be quickly deployed.
Indeed, some health authorities seem to be willfully confusing risks from influenza generally with risks from A(H5N1) in their public statements:

A three-day council of war on avian influenza opened here to warnings that a flu pandemic was inevitable, could kill millions and inflict up to 800 billion dollars in economic damage if the world failed to defend itself.

An influenza pandemic, potentially unleashed by a mutation of the H5N1 bird flu virus, "is only a matter of time," World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Lee Jong-Wook said Monday.

"We don't know when this will happen, but we know it will happen," Lee said. "(...) If we are unprepared, the next pandemic will cause incalculable human misery... no society will be exempt and no economy will be unscathed."

Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division at the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), said "the window of opportunity" remained open for tackling the threat at its source: on the farm.

"The virus has not yet reassorted or mutated," said Jutzi. "Action is required now. There is no time to lose here."

Of course, there is no "inevitable" A(H5N1) pandemic coming. What is thought to be "inevitable" is that the world will experience an influenza pandemic from some influenza virus. In fact, the risks of such a pandemic from A(H5N1) seem to be rather low compared to other viruses:

"The idea of a pandemic among humans is something from science fiction," Spanish Agricultural Minister Elena Espinosa said on the private radio station Cadena Ser, as Europe braced for the further spread of the H5N1 strain of the bird flu, which has killed 60 people in Asia during the past three years.
One particularly powerful argument being employed in the ongoing public relations and political campaigns exploiting fear of A(H5N1) is the supposed similarity of that virus to the 1918 Spanish Flu virus that is said to have killed 50 million people worldwide. But this comparision seems very shakey. Consider this story about Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, a molecular pathologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Technology who led the research team that reconstructed the long-extinct 1918 virus:

[If the 1918 virus] is from a bird, it is not a bird anyone has studied before. It is not like the A(H5N1) strain of bird flus in Asia, which has sickened at least 116 people, and killed 60. It is not like the influenza viruses that infect fowl in North America. Yet many researchers believe that the 1918 virus, which caused the worst infectious disease epidemic in human history, is a bird flu virus. And if so, it is the only one that has ever been known to cause a human pandemic. That, Dr. Taubenberger said, gives rise to a question. Are scientists looking for the next pandemic flu virus in all the wrong places?
So without the "precedent" of the Spanish Flu, there would apparently be no case of an avian flu mutating into a virus capable of a human pandemic. Researchers cannot even determine what kind of bird the Spanish Flu supposedly infected - if it was a bird flu virus at all.

How wise is it to frighten billions of people and divert billions of dollars of public health money into a project with such a shoddy scientific foundation? The risks of a disatrous collapse in the credibility of world health authorities, at least with respect to influenza, seems to be high. The risks of diverting scarce public health resources from other projects which are known to help millions of people seem high. How much "inevitable" malaria could be avoided with the billions of dollars now proposed for flu? But the chances that an intense world wide effort is needed seems to be low, although monitoring and other low-intensity efforts seem to be warranted.

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