Scare Scenario

Scare Scenario

It has all the makings of a horror flick, but panic over a possible bird flu pandemic is following a time-honored script: sensational media reports, profit-hungry drug manufacturers and politicians eager to capitalize on fears.


When I see the posters for the soon-to-be released Chicken Little movie, I have to wonder what the lead character would have to say about the current bird flu craze. Would he say the sky is about to fall on him? Or would he come to his senses and understand that even as an American chicken, he is more likely to be killed by panic than by the flu?

The American public is profiting the least from the ongoing hysteria surrounding avian influenza. The drug manufacturer Roche is suddenly in great demand for its antiviral drug Tamiflu, which has only been tested against bird flu in the test tube and has no current use, because the virus has not mutated to a form that can easily be transmitted among humans. A common misconception–that Tamiflu is some kind of a bird flu vaccine rather than an antiviral that at best decreases symptoms of infection–has led to a lot of impulse buying. As with the antibiotic Cipro, prescribed to treat anthrax back in 2001, Tamiflu is becoming a treatment for the fear of a virus rather than the virus itself.

Another main profiteer of the bird flu panic is our federal government. Driven to avoid another disaster debacle like Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration is galloping to the rescue in advance of anything happening. The President’s recent suggestion that he might use the military to control an influenza pandemic reminds us how quickly civil liberties can be sacrificed in an emergency. But more than that, it is a hysterical suggestion. Pandemics infiltrate a community person by person. A show of military force would likely cause a panic that would spread a virus more quickly.

Most bird flus don’t mutate sufficiently to pass to humans. And those that do are usually responsible for our yearly influenza outbreak. On the average of three times per century, a mutated avian influenza is a bad enough bug to cause a pandemic. The bird flu of current concern, A(H5N1), is a big killer among birds but is still several mutations away from being able to routinely infect us. The estimated sixty-five people who have died of it over the past two years did so because of their close and repeated contact with birds, not because of casual contact. Cooking a chicken kills the influenza virus.

So why all the panic over a potential threat? In part the public hysteria is due to the fact that basic information about this potential pandemic has been misconstrued or ignored about this potential pandemic, much in the way previous health threats in the news–anthrax, smallpox, West Nile virus, mad cow disease–were all magnified beyond their ability to do great harm.

In each case there is a doomsday scenario that is packaged and sold to the public by the media, which consequently makes some undeserving manufacturer rich or collects votes for an undeserving leader.

In the case of bird flu, direct comparisons to the scourge of 1918 may well be overblown. Many people died of pneumonia during that outbreak of the Spanish flu because there were no antibiotics to treat it. There were also no vaccines, no antivirals and little in the way of public health or the sanitary conditions Americans take for granted today. We also have our top scientists and epidemiologists tracking this avian flu, which was not the case in 1918 prior to the essential mutation.

Fear leads to a diversion of resources; our fear of bird flu is being translated into a proposal for massive stockpiles of perishable drugs and vaccines. Congress could calmly and rationally designate funds to upgrade our flu vaccine manufacturing capacity using the genetic technology we already use routinely for other vaccines. Instead, our government allows pharmaceutical companies to use an outdated chicken-egg medium that requires three to six months to develop a vaccine against a particular strain. This slow process is then a justification for panicked stockpiles.

Bird flu is better studied in the laboratory than in a news conference. This virus deserves public attention only insomuch as it motivates our government to improve emergency services while bringing methods of vaccine manufacturing into the twenty-first century.

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