The Militant Libertarian

I'm pissed off and I'm a libertarian. What else you wanna know?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Flu Fear For the Birds



ONE my patients got in touch last week to ask if she should keep stores of Tamiflu, an anti-flu drug, on hand at all times. Since we're at least four months from flu season, I understood she was concerned about bird flu. "Forget it," I advised. "There isn't a single case here."

Unfortunately, that fact doesn't stop Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease, from overinflated talk of "total preparedness."

This is a potential health threat, not an actual one. The bird flu has to mutate before it can affect humans — and historically it only makes that jump about once every 50 years.

By describing the problem as if it were already occurring, public-health authorities do a real disservice. The more vivid the description, the more a reaction on a grand scale seems indicated. Instead of worrying about heart disease or stroke, our true killers, we obsess on a remote risk.

Some "experts" use the once-in-50-years statistic to argue that a new pandemic like the one that killed more than 50 million people in 1918 is inevitable. Yet that scourge occurred in the wake of a devastating war, with the poorest of hygiene and living conditions. Today's technology, by contrast, could produce vaccine and anti-virals and cordon off large areas in a hurry.

And there is no way of knowing when such a mutation will occur. The current bird flu can't pass easily from human to human, a fact often obscured by the snowballing attention.

Remember SARS? We obsessed on the way that new killer cold virus flew around a hotel in Toronto infecting people. Some worried about getting infected by touching an elevator button. Sillier still, dread spread against everything and everyone Asian — with some New Yorkers even avoiding Chinese restaurants.

The real virus was fear.

A year later, scientists discovered that SARS actually doesn't transmit at all readily. The worry was ill-founded. That fact didn't get quite the same top-of-the-news coverage as the original alarms — a void that left many too ready to engage our hysteria the time around.

A proper perspective on the latest bug du jour is difficult to acquire while the news is trumpeting the supposed imminence of the threat. But it's not just a media problem.

The current plan to make enough bird-flu vaccine to protect most of the U.S. population is not good health. Two million doses have been prepared so far, with many more on the way at a great cost to the government and a strain on the resources of our vaccine makers.

Vaccines are perishable; they don't work beyond a few years and have to be discarded. And if a bird flu did mutate to human form over the next few years, the current vaccine probably wouldn't work well because it would be a different bug.

Yes, this or some other bird flu may one day transform into a ravenous societal killer. But we already have such killers now: obesity, heart disease, cancer and stroke. We shouldn't be diverting resources away from them — or from the battles against AIDS, tuberculosis and common influenza.

Marc Siegel's new book is "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear."

Got comments? Email me, dammit!
Permanent link for this article which can be used on any website:


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home