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