Hard to believe, but it’s been about seven years since the bird flu first raised its ugly beak and began to cause widespread concern. The dreaded pandemic never happened, but variations of bird flu have been in the news ever since.
This week is no different. Two men died and a woman became seriously ill in China earlier this year – the first known victims of a lesser-known strain of bird flu known as H7N9. Officials this week announced that one of the victim’s family members had pneumonia. (Read the story here.) Health officials are being cautious. There is no evidence of animal-to-human transmission of this strain, so the risks appear to be low.
And the public? Well, over here no one seems to care much. The regular flu season in the United States was a tough one. But after seven or more years of empty bird-flu concerns and a mild outbreak of influence Type A that was preceded by a bit of near panic, it will take a lot more than a couple of odd cases in Shanghai to get Americans to notice.
Back in 2006, I wrote a piece that said the biggest threat from the bird flu at the time might be panic. (Read the piece here.) I was particularly worried about the poultry industry, which seemed to be suffering a bit from all the publicity. My favorite line from that one? “To be clear, (people) shouldn’t worry so much about the actual flu itself — not unless they also like to guard against rhinoceros stampedes, meteor strikes and other rare events.”
I got a nasty email from someone in the health care industry telling me I was woefully ignorant and the bird flu was indeed going to come to these shores and make mayhem. For a while, every time a bird dropped dead somewhere it was front-page news.
Well, the emailer may be proven right yet, some day. I remember a conversation I had with Mike Leavitt when he was secretary of health and human services in the George W. Bush administration. He told me it was a mathematical certainty that a flu pandemic one day would spread death and mayhem like the one in 1918. Flu strains mutate constantly, which is why people need new flu shots each year. At some point, an exceptionally virulent strain will return.
Meanwhile, periodic panic has done little good. At its worst, it led to a widespread vaccination campaign that did more harm than good in the 1970s. This fortunate failure of a widespread outbreak has somewhat hurt the credibility of health officials. To be fair, those officials are in a no-win situation when faced with the need to get out ahead of a possible outbreak.
If I could update my 2006 piece, it would be to say that the biggest fear now might be widespread nonchalance. Not that I would advocate panic by any means. I have no doubt health officials remain vigilant regarding these flu strains, hence the periodic news stories. I just think everyone else needs to pay attention and trust those officials.
Given the way many Americans still refuse to have their children vaccinated against deadly childhood diseases despite ample evidence that those vaccines are safe, I don’t think this is a hollow concern.