Just at the moment news coverage of mad cow disease vanished from major newspapers' front pages, avian influenza A virus is on the wing.
That disease arose to become the phobia de jour, prompting authorities to issue grave warnings that all but predict a temporary collapse of society. Here are a few examples. Speaking at a conference in Cheyenne, Wyo., several days ago, the nation's secretary of health and human services, Mike Leavitt, counseled the populace to prepare for the scourge by squirreling away cans of tuna and powdered milk under the bed.
Later, an official of the American Red Cross, Darlene Washington, vouchsafed on "Good Morning America" that the flu could occasion power failures, the shuttering of schools and public events, end the practice of shaking hands and, again, that cans of tuna should be hoarded. Incidentally, couldn't either have nodded to the beleaguered poultry industry by suggesting that canned chicken be accumulated? You'll see more about bird flu and the industry's reaction in this week's SN, Page 38.
Before we yield to unbridled panic, let's see whether the danger of this disease might be a little overblown. After all, there has not been one case of the disease in this country, in man, beast or fowl. The disease established first in Asia, then in Europe and it's likely - but not certain - to reach these shores on the wings of the spring bird migration. Luckily, much has been learned about the flu. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, "Influenza A (H5N1) is an influenza A virus subtype that occurs mainly in birds, is highly contagious among birds, and can be deadly to them.
"Outbreaks of H5N1 among poultry are ongoing in a number of countries. While H5N1 does not usually infect people, human cases of H5N1 infection associated with these outbreaks have been reported. Most of these cases have occurred from direct or close contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces; however, a few rare cases of human-to-human spread of H5N1 virus have occurred, though transmission has not continued beyond one person."
To further assess risk, let's look at the worldwide morbidity rate inflicted so far. The World Health Organization reported last week that about 100 fatalities have occurred since late 2003. That represents an annual rate of around 40 fatalities so far. The annual mortality rate from lightning strikes in this country alone is more than twice that.
To summarize, the disease doesn't manifest in humans absent close contact with fowl, the disease has never advanced beyond one generation of human transmission and the morbidity rate is exceedingly low. Those tuna cans may gather a lot of dust.
But wait, again to the CDC: "[S]cientists are concerned that H5N1 virus one day could be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another." True, strange confluences of events occur. How likely was it that Hurricane Katrina would strike with such force at the very place so ill-suited to withstand its power?
Maybe the Katrina effect is what's happening here. Governmental and relief agencies proved to be so inept in the wake of Katrina that addressing another, albeit small, threat offers something of a mulligan.