By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

For the birds?

We’re approaching critical mass on the bird-flu story, which has been several years in the making. Today’s Globe and Herald both cover Gov. Mitt Romney’s plans to deal with a pandemic, should it ever come. The disease has spread to Turkey, although so far bird flu remains primarily a killer of animals, not humans.

Is the panic warranted? Given that we can expect the story to overtake tales of missing white women on the cable channels any moment now, this is a good time to re-examine an article published by The New Republic back in September. The piece, by science writer Wendy Orent (free link here), argues that the incipient panic over bird flu is much ado about nothing – which is certainly good news if it’s true. Here’s the nut:

ORENT: Is the Big Flu coming? Judging from such predictions, it must be. But it’s not. The expert predictions don’t take into account the evolutionary events necessary to turn an avian flu virus into a mass human killer. In ignoring the evolution of infectious disease, flu experts, science writers, and public health officials are leading us down the same path we’ve followed too many times before, with Swine Flu, Ebola, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Read the whole thing. Orent explains, in a reasonably understandable manner, how unlikely it is that the disease would mutate into a mass killer of humans, and why this isn’t like 1918. For one thing, she argues, the packed, disease-friendly conditions of World War I trench warfare were crucial to the flu’s evolving into a deadly pandemic. Those conditions simply don’t exist today.

Then again, the first comment to Orent’s article begins, “That article was so poorly written and ignorant of flu history & fact as to be appalling. Amazing that they let it be printed.” So caveat emptor.

Update: Does anyone remember the old Dave Berg cartoon in Mad Magazine about the woman who tries to join a conversation about Greece and Turkey, only to start babbling about grease and turkey? It’s sexist, but apt, given that this post involves bird flu and the nation of Turkey – not bird flu and, you know, turkey. If you got confused, as one commenter did, forgive yourself. It’s an easy mistake to make


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5 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    got it – Turkey the countrythought you were talking about Turkey – the Bird first time through

  2. Anonymous

    Romney’s suggestion that we prepare for a pandemic by stocking up on a month’s worth of food calls to mind Tom Ridge’s suggestion of duct taping ourselves into a room in the event of a chemical attack. Equally effective and logical.Romney’s other idea, looking into whether National Guard armories and college dorms could be used to house the sick is about as bright. I don’t know about the armories, but isn’t it a given that in the event of a pandemic, college dorms will already be housing the sick?- Kate in Norwood

  3. Anonymous

    I have to say, the “photo illustration” of Mitt holding the giant can of Grandma Brown’s Bean Soup was worth the price of a Herald.Mark

  4. mike_b1

    The Spanish Flu of 1918 went around the world three times and reached even remote Eskimo villages. I don’t think that can be attributed to trench warfare.

  5. The Lie Detector

    This whole bird flu thing is one big giant hoax and nothing more but fear-mongering by government and the medical mafia, aided and abetted by our witless media.Be proactive and keep your immune system strong through proper nutrition and exercise and forget about injecting injurious drugs into your bloodstream. Vaccines are neither safe nor are they effective.”

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