Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
There’s good news about the so-called Hong Kong avian flu. It won’t turn you into a bird.
Actually, there’s lots of good news, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers or watching the networks. Alas, once again the urge to sensationalize health news has made the media feverish. "Race to Prevent World Epidemic of Lethal ’Bird Flu,’ " and "Hong Kong ’Bird Flu’ Could Be the Next Big Outbreak," blare the headlines.
NBC News tells us that "what is frightening about this flu strain is that it is unlike any that has infected people before." We repeatedly hear of this new "deadly flu," or "killer flu." My favorite headline is "Mutant Killer Virus." Now, for a shot of reality. All forms of influenza are "mutant killer viruses."
Flu always mutates at least slightly each year. That’s why you need an annual flu shot: The antibodies that you got from the last one (or from the bout of flu you had last year) will no longer afford you full protection from the new strain.
A flu that didn’t kill would never be noticed. It would be one of countless viruses we carry around that do us little or no harm. Each year on average, some 20,000 Americans die of flu.
And of course, by definition the flu is a virus.
What’s more, all flu is probably "avian." The reason we get the flu is that it is routinely carried around in ducks, and sometimes geese and chickens. These birds usually suffer little from it or not at all. It spreads to humans when bird feces infect a water supply, or through domesticated animals, usually pigs.
So what should we be concerned about with this or any other new flu strain? Three factors bear consideration. First, how dramatically different is it from previous strains? Second, how contagious is it? Third, how severe is it?
The first factor is the only one of real concern with the virus at hand. As noted, each year influenza alters itself at least slightly. If the mutation is just slight, the exposure we got to previous strains either through shots or the disease itself will probably afford some protection. We won’t get as sick as we otherwise might; if we’re lucky, we won’t get sick at all.
These slight changes in the virus are called "drifts." But every so often — five times this century — the virus has mutated drastically, in what is called a "shift." When this happens, it’s a whole new ball game for your immune system. Chances are you will get sicker than you would otherwise.
The elderly and those already sick will have a greater chance of death. The last such shift that became a pandemic (an epidemic that strikes more than one country) was the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69, in which 34,000 Americans died.
This new flu has been verified to be a bona fide shift. But that’s been the only major cause for worry. Consider factor two. There is no evidence that this strain is highly contagious. Indeed, many of the researchers studying it believe they have yet to see it transmitted from person to person at all, though in one case a health care worker with extensive contact with a victim later developed antibodies to the virus.
And since Hong Kong is one of the most crowded places on earth, "the efficiency of transmission from human to human should not be high, or there should be hundreds of thousands of such cases in the territory by now," notes Hong Kong’s health director.
Finally, there is the issue of deadliness. Repeatedly we see invoked the deadliest flu epidemic in history, the so-called Spanish influenza that killed more than 20 million people world-wide, including half a million Americans, in 1918-19. Horrible stuff, not to mention a slur on Spain, since the first recorded cases were in the U.S.
But so far, the new flu’s deadliness appears to be about average, with four deaths to date out of 17 confirmed cases, three suspected cases, and probably a number of cases too mild even to come to the attention of medical authorities.
Besides, 1998 is not 1918. At that time World War I was just ending and there was tremendous confusion everywhere. Military camps were packed like Tokyo subway cars. Penicillin’s disease-fighting properties had yet to be discovered; today we have a huge number of antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. We even have two drugs that act directly against the flu virus, with two more highly promising ones in the pipeline.
Finally, there was no flu vaccine then. True, this strain could catch us off guard next flu season (in even the worst case it’s too late to do much damage this flu season), but then it would be a matter of quickly making batches of the vaccine and allocating the first ones to the elderly and sick.
The mere fact that this is a "shifted" virus strain justifies our having sent our top researchers to Hong Kong to study it, and even to make emergency contingency plans. But exaggerating the risks of a deadly flu pandemic and failing to point out that medical science has advanced tremendously since 1968 — much less 1918 — can do little more than cause an hysteria pandemic.