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Bird Flu Pandemic: Just For The Birds?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 24 October 2005
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'Experts assure us that, in the face of a bird flu pandemic, it’s only a matter of time before we in Western Europe see first birds and then people dropping in large numbers. We are right to take the warnings of health experts seriously. However, we are also in need of some real perspective. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be ruled by fear.'

Bird flu: our TV newscasts are full of it right now.

Not too long ago, the word ‘pandemic’ was little seen outside biology texts. Today, it has become an everyday part of newspaper parlance.

You might say that there have been more words said and written about bird flu than there have been cases of the disease itself, even among birds.

We first started hearing about bird flu a few months ago when it first appeared among poultry and wild birds in South East Asia. Birds die every day of one thing or another, but this story gained legs when a few people died of one strain of the disease. At present, there is no known cure for that strain.

Scientists seem to have a knack for giving virulent diseases rather listless and sterile-sounding names. In this case, the strain deadly to humans goes by the moniker ‘H5N1’. It sounds like some robotic contraption from a Star Wars movie.

In just a week, this mathematical-sounding name has found its way into the lexicon of everyday language, throughout much of the Western world.

We’re told that bird flu is fast making its way from the far east to Western Europe, stopping off first in Russia and some of the former Eastern bloc countries. Already, poultry farmers in Germany have been ordered to keep their birds indoors. The same injunction applies in Australia.

On some of the borders between Eastern and Western Europe, trains are sprayed with chemicals to prevent any bird-related matter from importing flu with it.

Experts assure us that it’s only a matter of time before we in Western Europe see first birds and then people dropping in large numbers.

For those experts, the question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ we have a human pandemic. Most of them suggest that it will happen in the next year or two.

Health authorities in the EU are obviously taking those predictions very seriously indeed – they met together last week to plan emergency responses to a pandemic.

In Britain alone, some predictions have 20,000 people dying each week if the disease takes hold. The British government has already pledged to provide every person in the nation with an anti-flu vaccine, paid for by the National Health Service.

But British citizens will have to wait at least four months for an effective vaccine to appear. These diseases tend to mutate so quickly that old vaccines cannot be used on new strains.

In that time, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to die as hospitals overflow and emergency services struggle to keep up with caring for the sick and the dying.

So, what are we to make of all this? Are we really sliding inexorably toward a showdown with mass death?

Or are all these stories about bird flu just another manifestation of the kind of mass paranoia that gave us the once ubiquitous, now largely forgotten, Y2K threat of 1999?

There is no doubt that, in this case, we are right to take the warnings of health experts seriously. It’s worth remembering that it was partly because people chose to remain ignorant of HIV and the threat it represented, that AIDS spread so quickly in the 1980s. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to take any credible health threat seriously.

However, it seems to me that we are also in need of some real perspective. We simply can’t allow ourselves to be ruled by fear.

In a world that for the past few years has been dominated by headlines about terrorism, it’s easy for us to become conditioned to fear. If we’re not careful, we become like Pavlov’s dogs, reacting in predictable, knee-jerk ways to every stimulus that unsettles us.

If we’re not watchful, we can let fear take root in our minds so that insecurity operates like background noise, forever cutting across the music of a full and rich life.

At this point, we should remember that only sixty people have died of bird flu-related issues worldwide. Of course, sixty people is sixty too many but, if you’ll pardon the pun, we shouldn’t start counting deadly viruses before they hatch.

Secondly, only a handful of birds in the West have thus far been found to suffer from bird flu of any kind, let alone the H5N1 strain. In the UK, one bird has died – but that particular bird was being held in normal quarantine after having been imported. So, at least some aspects of current preventive systems are working for us.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s important to note that there’s no evidence to suggest that the H5N1 strain can be transmitted from one human being to another – which is what would have to happen for a pandemic to occur.

Are we right to be vigilant, to use as many resources as possible to head off a potential disaster? Yes, definitely. Caution is appropriate. Being proactive is always better than being reactive and prevention is definitely superior to cure.

But what we don’t need is to live in a climate of fear or terror.

Fear is usually counterproductive, in that it saps our strength. In the end, terror robs us of our resolve to fight back, to survive. Terrified people give up hope quickly and without hope we are vulnerable to everything and anything.

Hope, said an old sage, is the oxygen of the soul. An even older and much respected book says that hope is the essential building block of faith. ‘Faith,’ it says, ‘gives substance to the things we hope for.’ Hope is a decision, an ongoing commitment to keep believing for the best, in the fact of life’s worst.

As of now, bird flu epidemics remain a threat – but that’s all they are, a threat. Diseases are not defeated by hope alone; but hope goes a long way to breaking the climate of terror which the threat of serious diseases can inspire.

What’s your view?

Will the threat of a bird flu pandemic alter the way you live your life in any way?



Keywords: bird flu | pandemic | flu | H5N1 | health | social comment | Mal Fletcher

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