Monday, October 24, 2005

Garrick Tremain has a cartoon in the ODT today comparing the bird flu pandemic (which, of course, hasn’t actually ‘begun’) to the YK2 bug hysteria. And perhaps that’s not unrealistic: putting the death rate so far in perspective, there have been an almost minimal number of deaths from the flu, and not that many more who’ve been sick because of it. Of course, the deaths themselves are all tragic for the families involved, but is it realistic to call this a possible pandemic? Wouldn’t a pandemic catch the world almost unawares and take control before humans had got their act together – or are we at least nowadays a bit more up with the play when it comes to such things?

People are hedging their bets on it: a few days ago the chief medical officer of Britain said, ‘A bird flu pandemic will hit Britain - but not necessarily this winter.’ And in another report, it says: "Scientists have warned that a strain of the disease deadly to humans could cause a lethal pandemic if it mutates into a form that can be spread from person to person. [Note that ‘if’.] The H5N1 strain has killed more than 60 people in South East Asia since 2003. However, of those only one is suspected to have died after catching the virus from another human, and experts stress the risk is low."

So people have caught it from the birds, apparently, but not from each other, and that’s where the worst problems would arise. But 60 deaths in two years? In a part of the world where the population is around one billion? That’s about .00000006%. Even 50,000 people out of Britain’s population is about 001% - again, though a large number in real terms, not a large number in terms of the population.

Am I dismissing the value of these individual lives, and the effect such losses would have on the general state of the country? No, not at all, but I am wondering if there isn’t a rising hysteria being created by the media about something that hasn’t yet proven to be anywhere nearly as dramatic as made out. More than twice as many people have just been killed in an air crash than have died of bird flu so far – are we going to stop people flying as a result?

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