The news yesterday that some dodgy imported (from Canada) pigeons that were exposed to bird flu have been quarantined in Melbourne has sparked lots of discussion here in Australia; do we start to panic, or do we have nothing to worry about? Well, Crikey's Sophie Vorrath gives us some reasons why Australians should and shouldn't panic:
Why we SHOULD panic:
- Because the H5N1 strain of the virus has killed about half the 120 people known to have picked it up from birds, says David Dobbs in Slate – and it bears disturbing genetic and clinical likenesses to the mass-killer Spanish flu virus of 1918.
- Because while scientists predict that the virus may become less pathogenic when it adapts to humans, even with much lower virulence the human and economic cost would be high, says Haruhiko Kuroda in the Financial Times.
- Because Australian customs officers discovered that 102 pigeons exposed to the bird flu made it to our shores, with three of the birds imported from Canada testing positive to bird flu antibodies.
- Because the European Union seems to be panicking, says The Economist. After outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain were confirmed in Russia, Romania, Turkey and possibly Greece, the EU's ministers held urgent meetings to discuss how to tackle an epidemic that could devastate the poultry industry or, worse, if the virus changes to become more easily communicable among people, set off a human influenza pandemic that threatens the lives of millions.
- Because bird flu has claimed another human life – this time a Thai villager, who contracted the disease when handling contaminated dead chickens. And though it's been a year since the virus last killed someone in Thailand, this highlights the difficulties south-east Asian countries still face in stamping out the disease.
Why we SHOULDN'T panic:
- Because the Prime Minister says so. While acknowledging that Australia is at risk from the virus, John Howard says the government is taking all the precautions it can, including trying to remedy the situation in which the public is finding it hard to access anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu.
- Because the UK's chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson says so – he told a media gathering this week that a pandemic was unlikely this European winter, says the Financial Times.
- Because fear distorts thinking and renders much of the decision-making in epidemics irrational and inefficient, says Raj Persaud in the Financial Times. Managing our fears is as vital at this time as understanding the virus.
- Because it's a beat-up, says Mick Hume in The Times. No doubt the experts and authorities should have contingency plans for a possible pandemic, but this doesn't justify the “public circus of warnings and point-scoring that is making a melodrama out of a health crisis, even before one exists.”
- Because it's the regular old human flu we should be worrying about, says Erdal Safak in Turkey's Sabah (via the BBC). World Health Organisation officials warn that the real danger of an epidemic will appear when these two viruses meet – we should start a campaign of free flu vaccinations before winter comes.
- Because clinical testing now under way suggests we'll soon have a viable vaccine, says Dobbs (in Slate). The biggest trial so far, conducted by drug maker Sanofi-Pasteur, has found that the company's vaccine safely produces immunity in healthy adults. They are now testing it on the elderly and children. Other drug makers, including Chiron, GlaxoSmithKline, and Medimmune, are running early trials of other formulations
I remember Tony saying earlier in the year that the whole Bird Flu thing scare's him; but even the "Canadian Pigeon" scare has failed to frighten me too much. That probably says more about me than it does about Tony (or anyone who is scared by Bird Flu).
I understand how deadly it is, and the article in this weeks Economist sure got me thinking, but the "I'm alright Jack" attitude in me still holds sway. It's not that I have absolute confidence in the ability of our Government's and authorities to keep us shielded from the virus, or that I am blessed with a super immune system.
There are three reasons that prevent me from raising a worrying cold sweat over Bird Flu. One; what's the probability of it making it to Australia? In all reality, pretty low. Two; if it does make it to Australia what are the odds that I, or anyone I know will contract it? Again, slim. And the third, and most telling (and the one that binds the first two) is that I am simply too self-centred to think that it will ever happen to me....And I reakon most Australians have their head in the same hole as me.