Still on the subject of bird flu,does anyone remember thefurore at the end of last yearwhen the virus first reached
For the past few days I have had flu. Not bird flu. Just the common or garden variety
which kills, on average, 12,500 people each year in Britain alone.
I don’t suppose the statistics have yet been gathered – but on past form it is likely that
tens of thousands of Europeans succumbed to flu this winter. Not one of these deaths has
warranted a mention in Newspapers; which are currently reporting the fact that a cat has
That thousands of individual tragedies are not newsworthy says something about ourculture; and the fact that we are obsessed with the spread of a virus which has killed lessthan one hundred people (all of whom were in direct contact with infected birds) says
He has ceased to be! He’sexpired and gone to meet
The facts about avian flu are relatively straightforward:
his maker! He’s shuffledoff this mortal coil and
The H5N1 strain of the flu virus is relatively new and virulent. It primarily attacksbirds. Since it is present in the wild bird population it is inevitable that the
virus will spread around the World; and will infect domestic poultry unless they
are either immunised or kept in isolation.
The virus can infect other species, humans and cats, if they come into direct
contact with infected birds. The degree of contact required is not certain –
eating a raw bird would do it though this more likely to concern cats than humans. In Asia many of the human death have been children who played around infected
poultry – implying transmission in dust, dirt or faeces.
a dead parrot, then it wouldbe comforting evidence that
The virus is killed by heat – and so by proper cooking.
The virus has not ‘jumped the species barrier’ to become transmissible between
humans and the threatened pandemic remains a speculation that this mighthappen. Scientists are happy to tell us that it could happen – but no-one is
actually putting a figure on how likely it is to happen.
How likely it is that millions of us may be killed by a pandemic is the only importantquestion with regard to avian flu. The news coverage of the issue is not driven by a
concern for a few cats – nor yet for poultry flocks and farmers. The media are
reporting the physical spread of the virus – and people are reading about it – becauseof the fear that it might kill us.
dead bird making theheadlines. A couple of weeks
No-one is saying how likely this is. And the truth is that no-one really has an interest
in dispelling our fears. Politicians cannot talk down the risk for fear that the virus
might mutate – and force them to eat their words. Virologists have no interest in
estimating the risks since the current concern is bringing them more attention and
funding. The media have a story – and the public have something to worry about.
the perceived risk hasdiverged further from the
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know better than to believesuch canards.
The articles were written by Chris Scott-Wilson,
Vice President of the Kangaroo Group.
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No-one will listen to me – but until someone puts a figure on the likelihood
of the virus mutating to become transmissible between humans the bird flupandemic remains no more than media speculation.
One might argue that no-one is really hurt by this – but these media scares
are not without costs. Poultry farmers are suffering as consumers avoideating chicken and other birds. But these costs will not weigh heavily inthe balance with Governments who spect billions to eradicate foot and
mouth in cattle (a virus which is not fatal and not transmissible to humans).
Elsewhere Governments are buying Tamiflu at significant costs to their health
budgets. They are preparing vaccines to H5N1 with which to protect people
should the virus mutate (assuming, I suppose, that the vaccine would stillwork against the new strain). Add it all up and the costs of ‘bird flu’ couldrun to billions of Euro. More importantly, perhaps, the more that our
leaders are pre-occupied with phantom issues such as a flu pandemic thegreater the opportunity costs as other issues slip down (or off) the agenda.
It adds up to a substantial mis-allocation of resources. Of course, if the
virus does mutate then everyone will congratulate themselves – and if it
does not the issue will soon be forgotten. No-one will be interested toconsider whether the money and time could have been better spent. Inpolitics, resources are deployed to meet a popular demand that ‘somethingbe done’ – regardless of whether it needs to be done.
The bird flu issue is an illustration of the way in which these matters arenow managed. The ‘precautionary principle’ requires us to consider allpossible outcomes and to guard against foreseeable risks.
The principle was first enunciated in the negative rather than the positive.
It was intended to prevent people (and particularly industry) from doinganything new unless all foreseeable risks are eliminated. One can argue
whether this principle has ever been applied but that’s beside the point.
We expect Government’s to manage future risk.
This begs the question – who determines the potential risk? For commercial
innovations, the management of risks may be passed to the people concerned
– for example by requiring innovators to prove that their product poses no
risk. This may inhibit innovation – but then perhaps it has been decidedthat ‘no risk’ is a better outcome that ‘no innovation’.
When the change is a natural phenomenon Governments cannot pass the
buck in this way. They are obliged to manage risk themselves and the
natural instinct is to try and eliminate all risks - altogether. This is not
possible. Risks cannot be completely eliminated and, with finite resources,
they cannot all be given equal priority.
However, if priorities must be set – this must surely be done by some measureother than the amount of exposure the issue has in the media. A processwhich means that success as a scientist, like everyone else, becomes morea matter of media exposure than of scientific truth.
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