by MARC K. SIEGEL
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."
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