Friday, October 21, 2005

Global Pandemic, or Chicken Little 2005


One of Alfred Hitchcock’s scarier offerings was a film in 1963 titled “The Birds”. One of the things which made the film both scary and comforting, was the knowledge that birds simply do not act in real life as they did in the film. That’s fine for entertainment, but it should not be used as a device to discuss more serious issues. That point seems lost on a number of people ready to jump to hysteria on the possible spread of Avian Flu, or H5N1.

TechCentral has set up a helpful site on the issue, although I still think the tone misses a proper sense of context. I should also note that some of the links posted do not appear to work, specifically the top site.

The World Health Organization is not helping, predicting “a death toll of up to 7.4 million”, on no more empirical evidence than Mayor Nagin used in predicting Katrina deaths. In the same article, not to be outdone in exaggeration, Dr. David Nabarro announced that the “range of deaths could be anything between 5 and 150 million”. Again, on no evidence of any kind; it appears that the speculation comes from computer models, which themselves are driven by parameters based on assumed conditions rather than any demonstrable performance by the virus. Even as the WHO pretends they are avoiding scare tactics, they employ just such false pretenses in trying to grab influence and resources. For good or ill intentions, they are choosing a foul tactic.

Henry Miller, a doctor pressing the case for immediate panic, or at least a flood of tax money thrown at the issue, claims “we'll need a Flu-Pandemic Czar -- someone analogous to Army General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project: a plenipotentiary with broad powers and discretion.” Leaving aside the obvious flaws in that analogy, the only clear effect such a move would have, is to add yet another bureaucratic office which will suck money and influence without a single guaranteed return. Dare I wonder whether Dr. Miller sees himself applying for the job?

I found it amusing, how the Tech Central site noted what they called “the Andromeda Strategy”, taking the name from the Michael Crichton bio-scare novel, “The Andromeda Strain”. The writers failed to note that in the book, the mutating virus never killed all the people it was supposed to hurt, and ended up mutating into a harmless organism. And just in case you are thinking about the very scary 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the one which is tagged for killing some 18 million people just at the end of World War 1, do bear in mind that this was in Europe after about a half-decade of all-out war; the general condition in Europe at that time was to be underfed, dirty, and weak, so that resistance to viruses in general were very low. For all the talk now, it needs to be remembered that a virus requires certain conditions to exist, to grow, and to attack people. The very same things which protect you from the flu you already know, protect you against the Avian Flu.

At this time, here is what we know for sure. H5N1 is a virus known to afflict poultry animals, and it has killed 65 people in Asia, 40 in just Vietnam. The virus mutates, which is how a bird flu has come to infect people. The bad news is, in the whole history of Mankind, there has never yet been a cure developed for any virus. Not one. The way you get better from a virus, is that you just plain outlast it. All the medicines in the world do no more than treat the symptoms, which is fine in most cases, but in a serious case of influenza it really comes down to your immune system versus the virus. And even with “common” flus, the CDC considered 2003 an “epidemic” year, because at one point just before the end of the year, more than 10% of the flu victims died from it. These were usually the very young and the very old, which is the regular behavior of flus. So there is a risk, but that has always been the case.

On the other hand, we can take quite a bit of comfort in the known behavior of viruses. Viruses are transmitted easily through liquid and air transmission, but also die quickly in open air, or when outside the required environmental range for growth or sustainability. Also, it is a plain fact that while new viruses are a special threat because humans do not have immunity to them, it is also true that humans invariably develop resistance to diseases, even viruses. If this were not true, we should as a species have long ago died from the multitudes of extant pathogens. At this time, the H5N1 strain would be a virulent and contagious threat, but there is no compelling evidence to show that the virus would necessarily become the pandemic threat so direly predicted. The WHO and other money/influence-hungry groups are playing Chicken Little at the cost of proportion and sound judgment.

Balance is a vital quality in this matter. On the one hand, the threat from a new viral strain is certainly worth watching, and appropriate efforts should be made to address a possible pandemic. But on the other hand, viruses act and grow in known parameters, and exaggerating a scenario in order to grab more resources can often cost other valid efforts vital materials. Laboratories and organizations like the Center for Disease Control, literally hundreds of major university and hospital research facilities are already in place and examining the virus, and for all the noise about insufficient vaccine being available, this comes from the fact that with a mutating virus, a series of vaccines will need to be developed, and they cannot be created until a sufficient sample of the virus is available for the process. In other words, no one is sitting on their hands ignoring the virus, but some people are trying to drum up a panic by hiding relevant facts.

Like all flu seasons, get lots of liquids and rest when you can, and make sure you get the facts. And eat chickens, don’t listen to them.

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