Bird Flu: Can We Out-Collaborate a Pandemic?

August 18, 2005

Inspired by the WorldChanging article Bird Flu: Can We Out-Collaborate a Pandemic?, I want to join the blogosphere chorus for educating the public about the dangers of avian influenza. This is a nasty topic almost no one knows about. Instead of writing my own article, I've borrowed the following from one Barry Campbell and his blog Enrevanche, licensed under the Creative Commons SA 2.0.

  1. Bird flu ("avian influenza H5N1") which has been making domestic and wild birds sick in Asia for years, is spreading rapidly, reaching epidemic levels in Russia and extending its reach towards Europe. (Source: Times of London.) If you are a bird, this sucks.
  2. In its current form, bird flu can also make people and other animals sick (more than 50 people have died from it already in Asia since 2003) but it is relatively hard to transmit. (Source: USA Today, quoting WHO statistics.)
    • The great fear is that the virus might mutate in such a way that it could jump between birds and human beings, and pass from human to human, much more easily.
    • This is an especially nasty flu virus, in that it has killed (so far) over 50% of the people who are known to have gotten sick with it.
    • If you are a bird, or a person, or any of the animals that can get the flu, this sucks.
  3. Public health agencies, within individual governments and across governmental boundaries, have been trying, and mostly failing, to alert the public to the potential risk of a bird flu pandemic in the human population.
  4. An uncontained epidemic of bird flu could kill millions (of people; it has already killed millions of birds.)
  5. We may not have time to prepare and distribute updated human vaccine stocks, and almost certainly don't have the resources to inoculate the whole world; however, we can stockpile modern anti-viral drugs, which are highly effective against flu if they are taken within a few days of the onset of symptoms, so that they could quickly be rushed to "hot spots" in the event of a major outbreak.
  6. Should the virus mutate into more easily transmissable form, and should public health monitoring pick up the clusters of new infection in time, aggressive treatment (with antivirals, see point 5) plus travel restrictions and quarantines are our best hope to avoid a tragedy.
  7. It is now time to rally public support behind plans for such aggressive monitoring and plan for intervention.

Got a blog, or a mailing list? Use your influence: talk the issue up. Alex Steffen's excellent article at WorldChanging (which moved me to write this post) has good suggestions for how to do it and points to excellent resources for you to use.