Why we SHOULD panic:



  • Because the H5N1 strain of the virus has killed about half the 120
    people known to have picked it up from birds, says David Dobbs in Slate – and it bears disturbing genetic and clinical likenesses to the mass-killer Spanish flu virus of 1918.

  • Because while scientists predict that the virus may become less
    pathogenic when it adapts to humans, even with much lower virulence the
    human and economic cost would be high, says Haruhiko Kuroda in the Financial Times.
  • Because Australian customs officers discovered
    that 102 pigeons exposed to the bird flu made it to our shores, with
    three of the birds imported from Canada testing positive to bird flu
    antibodies.
    • Because the European Union seems to be panicking, says The Economist.
      After outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain were confirmed in Russia,
      Romania, Turkey and possibly Greece, the EU’s ministers held urgent
      meetings to discuss how to tackle an epidemic that could devastate the
      poultry industry or, worse, if the virus changes to become more easily
      communicable among people, set off a human influenza pandemic that
      threatens the lives of millions.
    • Because bird flu has claimed another human life
      – this time a Thai villager, who contracted the disease when handling
      contaminated dead chickens. And though it’s been a year since the virus
      last killed someone in Thailand, this highlights the difficulties
      south-east Asian countries still face in stamping out the disease.


    Why we SHOULDN’T panic:

    • Because the Prime Minister says so.
      While acknowledging that Australia is at risk from the virus, John
      Howard says the government is taking all the precautions it can,
      including trying to remedy the situation in which the public is finding
      it hard to access anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu.
    • Because the UK’s chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson says so –
      he told a media gathering this week that a pandemic was unlikely this European
      winter, says the Financial Times.
    • Because fear distorts thinking and renders much of the decision-making in epidemics irrational and inefficient, says Raj Persaud in the Financial Times. Managing our fears is as vital at this time as understanding the virus.
    • Because it’s a beat-up, says Mick Hume in The Times.
      No doubt the experts and authorities should have contingency plans for
      a possible pandemic, but this doesn’t justify the “public circus of
      warnings and point-scoring that is making a melodrama out of a health
      crisis, even before one exists.”
    • Because it’s the regular old human flu we should be worrying about, says Erdal Safak in Turkey’s Sabah (via the BBC).
      World Health Organisation officials warn that the real danger of an
      epidemic will appear when these two viruses meet – we should start a
      campaign of free flu vaccinations before winter comes.
    • Because clinical testing now under way suggests we’ll soon have a
      viable vaccine, says Dobbs (in Slate). The biggest trial so far, conducted by drug
      maker Sanofi-Pasteur, has found that the company’s vaccine safely
      produces immunity in healthy adults. They are now testing it on the
      elderly and children. Other drug makers, including Chiron,
      GlaxoSmithKline, and Medimmune, are running early trials of other
      formulations.

    Peter Fray

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