The Silliness of Bird Flu Panic
Stephen McGarvey Stephen McGarvey's weblog
- 2006 May 15
Despite the ABC "movie of the week," there are lots of reasons not to freak out about a potential bird flu pandemic. The news media hasn't helped this situation with dire predictions of doom. Slate's Gregg Easterbrook points out a few things we might want to keep in mind....
[Bird flu is] a disease that since 2003 has killed 113 people worldwide. During the same span, about 4 million have died worldwide in traffic accidents. The number of these deaths is rising steadily in most nations, with road fatalities on track to become the world's third-leading cause of death—that is, traffic accidents look exactly like a pandemic. Also since 2003, at least 6 million people worldwide have died of diarrheal diseases, with about 1.5 million of those deaths attributed to rotavirus, which has spread in pandemic fashion.
Many people point to influenze pandemics of the past as a promise of a horrible future. Yet they forget that we live in much different times in the United States than we did in, say, 1918. Most of us have indoor plumbing now. Most of us get around in cars instead of on horses. And whatever you think about what gas emissions do to the global climate, cars don't deficate in the streets. We have better refirgeration and food storage now than we did 100 years ago. All factors that contribute to better public health. In addition, as Easterbrook points out, we did not have antibiotics back than either. But it is not any one of the above reasons that make it unlikely that we will have a bird flu pandemic on our hands, but a combination of all of them:
The point isn't that antibiotics could be used against the flu, which is unaffected by the chemical descendants of penicillin. It's that antibiotics, vaccines, and many other public health improvements make today's global population more resistant to all diseases than populations of the past. Whether a person exposed to a pathogen contracts the disease is tremendously influenced by the state of the person's health. The body of a person in good basic health—that is, not already sickened by something else—will fight off most pathogens. This is why hospital patients often contract pneumonia, strep, and staph while doctors and nurses do not contract these diseases. Today the majority of the citizens of the world are in good basic health. If a transmissible [bird flu virus] mutation happens, it likely won't jump wildly from person to person, leaving piles of the dead to be placed upon pyres, because most people's bodies will defeat the pathogen.
And as yet, there is not one recorded case of someone getting bird flu from another person. Scientist tell us this is why the 1918-1919 influenza spread so quickly. So far, all the victims have gotten it from animals.
Read the article on Slate: The Mutant Chickens Are Coming!