Monday, September 19, 2005

Avian flu: The next pandemic?

Yet one more thing to drive us insane with worry:

Millions of people could die around the world if bird flu spreads out of control, and most countries are totally unprepared for such an event, the UN's World Health Organisation says.

"If there was a flu pandemic tomorrow we would not be ready. The clock is ticking and when the pandemic strikes it will be too late," said WHO spokeswoman Christine McNab.

Despite warnings at the United Nations by US President George W. Bush and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin calling for international cooperation to confront the "first pandemic of the 21st century," the international community was far from prepared."

There is very good momentum, but a lot of work remains to be done," McNab said.

Of the 192 members of the UN just 40 countries had drawn up detailed plans for combatting an outbreak in humans of a mutation of the H5N1 virus which could, like the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, kill millions of people.

For the WHO it is question of when, not if, the virus crosses over to a strain affecting humans, experts said."

The question is, 'When is it going to happen?' I don't think anybody has the answer to it... We have to be on the lookout for any time, any day," the WHO specialist on the virus, Margaret Chan, said in July.

he United Nations has called on its member states to make preparations with a document entitled "Responding to the avian influenza pandemic threat: recommended strategic actions."

Health professionals say an outbreak would appear in three phases:

-- the prepandemic phase, that needs to be countered by a sophisticated warning system and information sharing so as to detect the first changes in the virus's behaviour;

-- an "emerging phase";

-- the "declared pandemic phase" when the virus rages unchecked across national borders.

"Since late 2003, the world has moved closer to a pandemic than any time since 1968... given the constantly changing nature of influenza viruses, the timing and severity of the next pandemic cannot be predicted," the WHO document says.

I have no doubt that this is a serious problem, especially in the developing world, but I wonder if this warning is in any way an exaggeration of the threat, or at least a worst-case scenario that the mainstream media will pick up and turn into yet another story of impending doom. (They like that, you know. Forgive my cynicism, but let's be honest.)

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On a related note, if you'll excuse the personal digression, I'm currently reading Gregg Easterbrook's excellent book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Easterbrook's main point, presented in chapter after chapter of compelling statistics, is that life is getting better more or less across the board throughout the Western world. While the media focus on the bad news, and on misreadings of the good news, the statistics show that the West is getting safer and cleaner while people are living longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Yet, even so, people feel worse. Easterbook offers a number of plausible explanations for this "paradox," but I wonder how much of it has to do with how the world is filtered through the media, where it's pretty much all bad news all the time. Here's how Easterbrook puts it:

News organizations adore the word "crisis" and use it as often as possible... Western life is methodically made to sound perilous or precarious by media spin, which emphasizes the negative aspects of developments while downplaying the positive... The media further create an impression of a country getting worse by obsessive focus on smaller and smaller risks. Brain damage from cell phones, extremely rare allergies, claims of all-new psychological complexes, strange turns of events that affect only tiny numbers of people -- increasingly newspaper, television, and news-magazine reports dwell on one-in-a-million risks.

All this leads to "ampified anxiety" -- and we all feel it. When I turn on the local Toronto news, for example, or read our local papers, all I hear about or read about is murder (with attention on the annual tally thus far), kidnapping (mainly children), pollution (especially the smog), and traffic congestion (bordering on gridlock). Based on media reports, Toronto is apparently a city in which people are being randomly gunned down, children are being swiped by pedophiles out from under their parents' noses, no one can breathe, and no one can get anywhere by car. Oh, and then there's the weather, which could turn ugly at any moment.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be worried about avian flu or about the genuine problems that confront us -- and crime, pollution, and, to a lesser extent, traffic congestion are, to be sure, serious problems. But the media -- and I know I'm generalizing here, but I think the generalization is fair -- would much rather engage in self-interested fear-mongering than in balanced reporting. To them, good news is bad news, and a "crisis" sells much better than no crisis.

Of course, avian flu may yet become a crisis. Maybe it is already, for all I know, and, even if it isn't, we (and especially the WHO and other health organizations) need to be prepared for the worst -- this was clearly one of the problems down in New Orleans, which wasn't at all prepared for the worst. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, and let's not drive ourselves into ever-deeper anxiety, just because the media would have it no other way, just because we can't see the good through the constant barrage of the bad.

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