November 21, 2005

Hamilton’s depiction of the bird flu is horribly flawed

After researching the H5N1 virus, the strain currently causing concern about an avian influenza pandemic, for the past three weeks, I read Laura Hamilton’s latest article “Fears of a bird flu epidemic are overblown” and had the distinct feeling of getting beaten with a club labeled “misinformed antipathy.” I admonish the MAROON for allowing this tripe to be printed, particularly since it belittles a real, legitimate health concern that the general public has not been fully educated about.

This isn’t your average annual flu or a time-dependent pandemic argument; this has been an ongoing researched event since H5N1 reemerged with high virulence in Asian poultry in 2003. The fact that it wasn’t as heavily reported on in 2003 as it is now doesn’t diminish the bird flu’s importance. A shortage of flu vaccines is nothing compared to the possible introduction of a deadly disease humans have no immunity to.

Hamilton paints all fears for a pandemic bird flu as the fabrications of a paranoid and wholly-exaggerative media. Of course, it is conservatives’ favorite pastime to attack The New York Times, but this claim is simply negated by the general course of action being taking by governments all over the world. WHO, the CDC, the governments of China, Great Britain, Japan, Germany, and Mexico have all developed contingency plans for preventing, and inevitably dealing with an avian flu pandemic. Even President Bush – who no one would claim is swayed by a liberal media—unveiled a $7.1billion national strategy to tackle a possible flu pandemic, saying the U.S. was “likely” to face a pandemic at some point, whether caused by a strain of Asian bird flu, or another super-flu strain. With most reasonable world leaders exhibiting great concern about the bird flu, it’s hard to imagine they were all influenced by a few Jeremiad articles rather than hardcore scientific evidence and reasoning.

And this is where I fault Hamilton the most for being misleading; she doesn’t state the reasons why bird flu is being taken as a serious threat, or omits and distorts the facts and makes them misleading the public. In 1997, the H5N1 virus did infect only 18 people and caused the death of six. But, the H5N1 virus had never before been transmitted from birds to humans, thus humans had no acquired immunity to this virus.

Secondly, this isn’t the precise virus we’re dealing with now because viruses aren’t uniform. The exact 1997 Hong Kong H5N1 strain has not been reported since the massive killing of 1.5 million chickens. Even within the H5N1 type, variations are seen, and these slightly different strains are becoming more deadly and more infectious than the 1997 strain. The current H5N1 viruses have killed half the people they have infected (127 Asians so far), with higher lethality rates than the common human flu.

So far, the H5N1 virus has not successfully been transmitted between humans, and has not combined with a human virus. The virus itself will not cause a pandemic, but the credible fear is the virus could exchange genes with a human flu virus if a person was simultaneously infected with both, thus evolving to this interchangeable and lethal virus between birds and humans.

Mutations are needed for the virus to be transmitted from person-to-person, but viruses exchange genetic information and replicate in a mater of two weeks, and each strain’s evolution is dependent on its host (be it chicken or man) and the area it infects. Who knows? By the time this article goes to print, this type of H5N1 virus may have already evolved.

An H5N1-borne influenza just as deadly as the deadly as the 1918 flu (which was an avian influenza virus also) is estimated to cause from 2 million to 7.4 million deaths according to the World Health Organization. However, take into account a growing population of the United States and Europe is over 65 years old and thus susceptible to flu, the casualties of a flu pandemic could get higher.

The ultimate message about the bird flu is not one of fear and hysteria, but of precaution. Humans can’t control the spread or development of the H5N1 virus, but they can at least be prepared. H5N1 viruses will continue to exist and circulate in birds in Asia and now Europe. What the scientific community is worried about is whether or not the virus can mutate and reassort with human viruses to become a killer virus. Thus, all these preventative measures—killing millions of birds to stop the spread of the disease among birds, further research into more effective vaccinations that the H5N1 virus is not immune to—are needed to make sure a pandemic does not occur. So, if you think about the bird flu, be prepared rather than fearful. Treating the flu like a run-of-the-mill fear is like sitting on a powder keg ignoring the fuse being lit.