On November 1, 2005 the
Whitehouse asked Congress to budget over $7,000,000,000
(billion) to prepare for the "bird flu pandemic". While
it's easy to see the political benefit of such a request
(lots of money for special interest groups, and
a distraction from problematic political issues),
most Americans have little understanding of how real
or fictitious this danger is.
So today we look at
information from a couple of different sources. One
is from a report issued by Strategic
Forecasting, Inc. This company provides corporations, governments and individuals with
strategic intelligence on the economic, political and
security issues that affect them. (You can learn more
about the company by
As you will see, the
researchers acknowledge that the risk of a pandemic is
always present, but they also suggest that this one is not
as ominous as the headlines want you to believe.
The sidebar article (on the
left) addresses some common sense steps we can all take to
make sure that we are not victims of something that is
easily dealt with by administering much more reasonable,
simple, and inexpensive remedies than the $7 billion being
May we all live long and
"If people let government decide what foods they eat and
what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as
sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under
Special Report: The
Bird Flu and You
By Strategic Forecasting, Inc.
Stratfor subscribers have been
sending us a steady river of requests for our opinion on
the bird flu situation. Although we are not medical
experts, among our sources are those who are. And here
is what we have been able to conclude based on their
input and our broader analysis of the bird flu threat:
Now let us qualify that: Since December 2003, the H5N1
bird flu virus -- which has caused all the ruckus -- has
been responsible for the documented infection of 121
people, 91 one of whom caught the virus in Vietnam. In
all cases where information on the chain of infection
has been confirmed, the virus was transmitted either by
repeated close contact with fowl or via the ingestion of
insufficiently cooked chicken products. In not a single
case has human-to-human communicability been confirmed.
So long as that remains the case, there is no bird flu
threat to the human population of places such as Vietnam
at large, much less the United States.
The Politics of Genetics
An uncomfortable but undeniable fact is that there are a
great many people and institutions in this world that
have a vested interest in feeding the bird flu scare.
Much like the "Y2K" bug that commanded public attention
in 1999, bird flu is all you hear about. Comparisons to
the 1918 Spanish influenza have produced death toll
projections in excess of 360 million, evoking images of
chaos in the streets.
One does not qualify for funding -- whether for academic
research, medical development or contingency studies --
by postulating about best-case scenarios. The strategy
is to show up front how bad things could get, and to
scare your targeted benefactors into having you study
the problem and manufacture solutions.
This hardly means that these people are evil, greedy or
irresponsible (although, in the case of Y2K or when a
health threat shuts down agricultural trade for years,
one really tends to wonder). It simply means that fear
is an effective way to spark interest and action.
Current medical technology lacks the ability to cure --
or even reliably vaccinate against -- highly mutable
viral infections; the best available medicines can only
treat symptoms -- like Roche's Tamiflu, which is
becoming as scarce as the oftentimes legendary red
mercury -- or slow a virus' reproduction rate. Is more
research needed? Certainly. But are we on the brink of a
cataclysmic outbreak? Certainly not.
A bird flu pandemic among the human population is
broadly in the same category as a meteor strike. Of
course it will happen sooner or later -- and when it
does, watch out! But there is no -- absolutely no --
particular reason to fear a global flu pandemic this flu
This does not mean the laws of nature have changed since
1918; it simply means there is no way to predict when an
animal virus will break into the human population in any
particular year -- or even if it will at all. Yes, H5N1
does show a propensity to mutate; and, yes, sooner or
later another domesticated animal disease will cross
over into the human population (most common human
diseases have such origins). But there is no
scientifically plausible reason to expect such a
crossover to be imminent.
But if you want something to worry about,
you should at least worry about the right thing.
A virus can mutate in any host, and pound for pound, the
mutations that are of most interest to humanity are
obviously those that occur within a human host. That
means that each person who catches H5N1 due to a close
encounter of the bird kind in effect becomes a sort of
laboratory that could foster a mutation and that could
have characteristics that would allow H5N1 to be
communicable to other humans. Without such a specific
mutation, bird flu is a problem for turkeys, but not for
the non-turkey farmers among us.
But we are talking about a grand total of 115 people
catching the bug over the course of the past three
years. That does not exactly produce great odds for a
virus -- no matter how genetically mutable -- to evolve
successfully into a human-communicable strain. And bear
in mind that the first-ever human case of H5N1 was not
in 2003 but in 1997. There is not anything fundamentally
new in this year's bird flu scare.
A more likely vector, therefore, would be for H5N1 to
leap into a species of animal that bears similarities to
human immunology yet lives in quarters close enough to
encourage viral spread -- and lacks the capacity to
complete detailed questionnaires about family health
The most likely candidate is the pig. On many farms,
birds and pigs regularly intermingle, allowing for
cross-infection, and similar pig-human biology means
that pigs serving in the role as mutation incubator are
statistically more likely than the odd Vietnamese
raw-chicken eater to generate a pandemic virus.
And once the virus mutates into a form that is pig-pig
transferable, a human pandemic is only one short
mutation away. Put another way, a bird flu pandemic
among birds is manageable. A bird flu pandemic among
pigs is not, and is nearly guaranteed to become a human
Pandemics: Past and Future
What precisely is a pandemic? The short version is that
it is an epidemic that is everywhere. Epidemics affect
large numbers of people in a relatively contained
region. Pandemics are in effect the same, but without
the geographic limitations. In 1854 a cholera epidemic
struck London. The European settling of the Americas
brought disease pandemics to the Native Americans that
nearly eliminated them as an ethnic classification.
In 1918 the influenza outbreak spread in two waves. The
first hit in March, and was only marginally more
dangerous than the flu outbreaks of the previous six
years. But in the trenches of war-torn France, the virus
mutated into a new, more virulent strain that swept back
across the world, ultimately killing anywhere from 20
million to 100 million people. Some one in four
Americans became infected -- nearly all in one horrid
month in October, and some 550,000 -- about 0.5 percent
of the total population -- succumbed. Playing that
figure forward to today's population, theoretically 1.6
million Americans would die. Suddenly the fear makes a
bit more sense, right?
First -- and this one could actually make the
death toll higher -- is the virus itself.
There are four major differences between the 1918
scenario and any new flu pandemic development:
No one knows how lethal H5N1 (or any animal pathogen)
would be if it adapted to human hosts. Not knowing that
makes it impossible to reliably predict the
as-yet-unmutated virus' mortality rate.
Second, 1918 was not exactly a "typical" year.
At this point, the mortality rate among infected humans
is running right at about 50 percent, but that hardly
means that is what it would look like if the virus
became human-to-human communicable. Remember, the virus
needs to mutate before it is a threat to humanity --
there is no reason to expect it to mutate just once.
Also, in general, the more communicable a disease
becomes the lower its mortality rate tends to be. A
virus -- like all life forms -- has a vested interest in
not wiping out its host population.
One of the features that made the 1918 panic so
unnerving is the "W" nature of the mortality curve. For
reasons unknown, the virus proved more effective than
most at killing people in the prime of their lives --
those in the 15- to 44-year-old age brackets. While
there is no reason to expect the next pandemic virus to
not have such a feature, similarly there is no reason to
expect the next pandemic virus to share that feature.
World War I, while coming to a close, was still
raging. The war was unique in that it was fought largely
in trenches, among the least sanitary of human habitats.
Soldiers not only faced degrading health from their
"quarters" in wartime, but even when they were not
fighting at the front they were living in barracks. Such
conditions ensured that they were: a) not in the best of
health, and b) constantly exposed to whatever airborne
diseases afflicted the rest of their unit.
Third, health and
nutrition levels have radically changed in the past 87
As such, the military circumstances and style of the war
ensured that soldiers were not only extraordinarily
susceptible to catching the flu, but also
extraordinarily susceptible to dying of it. Over half of
U.S. war dead in World War I -- some 65,000 men -- were
the result not of combat but of the flu pandemic.
And it should be no surprise that in 1918, circulation
of military personnel was the leading vector for
infecting civilian populations the world over.
Nevertheless, while the United States is obviously
involved in a war in 2005, it is not involved in
anything close to trench warfare, and the total
percentage of the U.S. population involved in Iraq and
Afghanistan -- 0.005 percent -- is middling compared to
the 2.0 percent involvement in World War I.
Though fears of
obesity and insufficient school lunch nutrition are
all the rage in the media, no one would seriously
postulate that overall American health today is in
worse shape than it was in 1918. The healthier a
person is going into a sickness, the better his or her
chances are of emerging from it. Sometimes it really
is just that simple.
Indeed, a huge
consideration in any modern-day pandemic is availability
of and access to medical care. Poorer people tend to
live in closer quarters and are more likely to have
occupations (military, services, construction, etc.) in
which they regularly encounter large numbers of people.
According to a 1931 study of the 1918 flu pandemic by
the U.S. Public Health Service, the poor were about 20 to 30 percent more likely
to contract the flu, and overall mortality rates of the
"well-to-do" were less than half that of the "poor" and
factor, which will pull some of the strength out of
any new pandemic, is even more basic than starting
The 1918 pandemic
virus was similar to the more standard influenza virus
in that the majority of those who perished died not
from the primary attack of the flu but from secondary
infections -- typically bacteria or fungal -- that
triggered pneumonia. While antibiotics are hardly a
silver bullet and they are useless against viruses,
they raise the simple possibility of treatment for
bacterial or fungal illnesses. Penicillin -- the first
commercialized antibiotic -- was not discovered until
1929, 11 years too late to help when panic gripped the
world in 1918.
"President George W. Bush outlined a $7.1 billion
strategy for preventing a pandemic of the flu
strain H5N1 that has killed 62 people."
The Associated Press (Nov 2005)
1 million children die of Malaria every year ... up
to 90% of which could be prevented with a $5
mosquito net to cover them while they sleep."
- RX for Survival (Nov 2005)
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