Avian flu, bird flu, H5N1 flu virus: these are all hot-words creeping up in the public attention right now. This is not unusual for the fall months, the time of year when we prepare to combat the latest variant of influenza virus to come down the pike (or to jump the Pacific from Asia).
It is unusual this year, with so much else going on to claim our attention.
Recently, these background fears were brought to the forefront with the announcement by Gina Kolata in a New York Times Health article that research had revealed the source of the 1918 flu pandemic (in which 50 million people died): an avian infection that had jumped to directly to humans. RatcliffeBlog cites a Wall Street Journal article about this revelation, published in Nature:
The findings by Dr. Taubenberger and his team of researchers… follow a nine-year effort to decode the 1918 strain by sequencing its eight genes. The research concluded that the pandemic flu outbreak was most likely caused by an avian virus. The scientists also discovered 10 mutations that distinguish the 1918 virus from avian bugs, suggesting changes that the virus made to adapt to a human host, they said. They also noted that some of those mutations are also present in the currently circulating H5N1 virus, suggesting it could make the jump to humans in a similarly rapid and alarming way.
Web-journalism guru Crawford Killian also writes H5N1, a blog devoted to news about this flu variant and its dangers. He says, “I suspect we’re not very far from the 1918 faith in holy medals as ways to stave off disease.” In a meta-commentary on his Writing for the Web blog, Killian notes,
ABC News ran a segment on Primetime about avian flu. I’d even found an item on the Web about it, and posted the news. But I had no idea that the program would trigger a remarkable spike in my traffic. From routine traffic of 550 hits per 24 hours, H5N1 was suddenly logging four or five times that. Eventually I realized what was happening, and saw traffic peak, a day or so later, at a little over 6000 hits/24 hours… This was clearly due to viewers of one program, who promptly booted their computers, Googled “h5n1,” and found my site as #2 out of close to two million pages.
At Effect Measure, the Editors sign themselves “Revere.” (Paul Revere was a member of the first local Board of Health in the United States, in Boston, 1799.) They note that attention to bird flu has ratcheted up in the media.
Without Hurricane Katrina we’d probably be in the Persistent Vegetative State that characterized the previous five years of the Bush Administration regarding any threats not part of the Global War on Terrorism message. But despite the new attention, it is doubtful whether either the Administration or Congress will make much difference. The Senate has appropriated almost $4 billion in new bird flu funds… Most of it, however, is for a big Tamiflu buy, not the wisest use, especially when the US is so far down the client list it won’t get the new supply for some time.
Spence at Future Health Solutions reports that thousands of turkeys in NW Turkey have been destroyed due to suspicions of their harboring the H5N1 flu variant. Bulgaria will watch migratory bird flocks to detect possible transmission of flu to domestic birds. And Romania has
…identified three cases of birds killed by the Asia-originated deadly flu strain. London has confirmed the probes Romania urgently sent for research. The first cases were discovered in the Danube delta a crossroad of the migratory routes of wild birds coming from Russia, Scandinavia, Poland and Germany.
According to the Sri Lanka Sunday Observer, though, India sees no cause for alarm over an avian flu epidemic. “So far there has been no human-to-human transmission of the virus.”
At Bayosphere, blogger Dan Gilmore isn’t so sanguine. He blames the Bush administration for failing to get in line for supplies of flu vaccine sooner, and says,
Here’s what a more competent and less ideological administration would do. It would say there’s an emergency, and launch an emergency effort to get American pharmaceutical companies will make this drug, paying a royalty to Roche. And if Roche balked, we’d do what developing nations are doing in the case of hyper-expensive AIDS drugs: Make them anyway. Meanwhile, we’d be embarking on a crash vaccine program, one designed so we were not dependent on the same drug industry that left the US without nearly enough flu shots last year…
The Freedom Rider seems more worried about a military response to a flu epidemic in the US than he is about the disease itself. “In case of a bird flu outbreak, President Bush says that he would have to call in the troops, here on US soil, to keep us all safe. Somehow the thought doesn’t make me feel any safer.”
Don’t worry, chandrasutra tells us—according to experts, “information is key to fighting flu pandemics.” The post cites a number of excellent resources in the battle, including the WHO Avian flu site, and a BBC Avian Flu Q&A.
And at Junkyard Blog, B. Preston notes that the Democrats’ plan to create the “next great genocidal smear campaign… will shamelessly use the coming bird flu threat to orchestrate it.” Preston points out that the Bush Administration has spent a year building a plan to deal with a pandemic, and notes
Bush literally can’t win with them–especially when the failures in New Orleans had “Democrat” written all over them. The closer to failure the Democrats actually are, the more they blame Bush for it. [Avian] flu has been nagging at the edges since 1997. Last time I checked, that means the Clintonistas had a few years to start working on the problem. Did they? Did they?
The threat may be real, or it may be an inflated concern like the 1976 Swine Flu fiasco, when more people died from the vaccine for the flu than from the disease itself. H5N1 could be the next “Great Pandemic.” Or it could be only another political football to justify spending our money and curtailing our freedoms.