The Bird Flu Pandemic: Panic and Prevention

An employee walks past a bird sticker that prevents birds from crashing into the window, during a break of the global bird flu conference, at the W.H.O. headquarters in Geneva. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP-Getty Images)

Countries around the world have taken preventive measures against a potential outbreak of bird flu, which has killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia since it was first discovered in 2003. Today, 400 experts and decision-makers gathered at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, for a three-day council of war on bird flu.

“Avian Flu Has Not Yet Changed Its Way of Transmission”

HONG KONG — Hong Kong Daily News (Center-left), Oct. 28:
Judging from the current evidence, people get sick through their contacts with chickens and birds. There is no evidence that the virus is spreading through human-to-human transmission. If countries can kill and bury ill poultry immediately and educate their farmers not to eat dead poultry, it will be conducive to stopping the outbreak of avian flu. However, raising poultry is the major income of Southeast Asian farmers. A large-scale slaughtering of chickens will result in huge economic losses. In addition, local governments, because they lack money, do not have good compensation systems. For these reasons, they are not able to curb the virus. In the beginning, rich countries in Europe and America were not willing to provide any financial assistance. They just watched the fire from the other side of the river. Only after the avian flu spread around the world did they then hurriedly “mend the fence.” However, some people already worry that their actions might have come too late.

“Much Flu About Nothing”

NEW DEHLI — Hindustan Times (Centrist), Oct. 27:
To stop a disease that has killed less than 100 people, tens of thousands of small farmers in Asia have been ruined by bird culls that have run past the 140 million mark … In the meantime, governments are spending billions on actions that are often more about symbolism than science … When patents come under threat so do profits, private firms stop doing research about that disease and the chances for a genuine cure recede … Tamiflu, a non-cure for a hypothetical pandemic, is a poor case for the extreme action of patent breaking. No one should think that bird flu is not a threat. Given the right conditions and enough time, the virus will jump through the genetic hoops needed to make it a mass killer … The present bird flu crisis will burn itself out in the next few months. Its legacy, however, is shaping up to be the worst of all worlds: unenlightened public, unreformed poultry industry and less medical research.
—Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

“Poultry Bans Not Enough”

NAIROBI — The East African (Independent weekly), Oct. 25:
The Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that East Africa could become a hotspot unless rigorous containment measures are taken … The announcement by multinational drug maker Roche that it will not use its patent to restrict nations at risk of a human epidemic from independently manufacturing the medicine has opened a window of opportunity. Producing the drug locally will be a smart decision since global demand, especially from the developed countries, is such that Roche’s facilities are already overstretched. But our governments [Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania] also need to immediately launch public health awareness programs on the risk of transmission posed by migratory birds. People who keep poultry across the region need to be told about the telltale signs of the avian flu, as well as to be alerted to the dangers of handling diseased birds. Other viral epidemics in East Africa, including HIV/AIDS and Ebola in northern Uganda, have already shown that early interventions can save lives.

“No Virus but Panic”

BUDAPEST — Vilaggazdasag (Business-oriented), Oct. 21:
So far, Hungary has managed to thoroughly overreact to the bird flu issue. Although here the virus has not appeared in any form, it has taken us practically no time to find the phantom we nevertheless fight against in the meantime. One cannot say that the appearance of the pathogen in Europe has not brought about panicky reactions within the Union, but the psychosis that has emerged in Hungary seems to be a typically Hungarian specialty … It is hard to believe, still it seems to be true that an entire business [poultry processing] might be ruined by the news of something which practically does not even exist yet. Or should we rather root for the psychosis to last, as long as the real virus never appears?
—Laszlo Hazafi

“On a Wing and a Prayer”

LONDON — The Guardian (Liberal), Oct. 15:
It would be wrong, though understandable, for public concern about the threat from avian flu to be rising. It would be understandable because even international experts have given widely different estimates of the risk. One U.N. health adviser suggests that if the bird flu virus H5N1 mutates to make it more capable of spreading from human to human, then up to 150 million people could be killed. But that expert was promptly contradicted by the World Health Organization’s influenza spokesman, who thought the maximum mortality figure would be 7.4 million. The reality is that there are no accurate figures. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu, which first appeared as a bird flu virus, killed between 20 million and 40 million people. But global preventive action has been transformed since then. Separate scientific teams here and in the U.S., using computer models, have recently concluded that, even if H5N1 mutates, a global pandemic could be stopped if governments work together.

“Bird Flu Alert”

KINGSTON — The Jamaica Gleaner (Privately-owned, Independent), Oct. 15:
Health experts are warning that it is not a matter of if, but of when, where, and how badly people will be affected, as the global alert for Asian bird flu intensifies … We have reported that Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke has instructed the Veterinary Services Division of the Ministry to work closely with the Ministry of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that no infected birds are imported into the island. As the W.H.O. has pointed out, an adequate response to the threat requires full international collaboration and co-ordination among agencies and sectors within particular countries. A crucial part of the whole effort is individual responsibility. The magnitude of the threat, not just to the country but to the individual, warrants a massive public education campaign around avoiding bird-to-bird transmission and human-to-human transmission … Prevention is essentially the only viable option and the population must be prepared, as far as possible, to responsibly exercise this option.

Viewpoints includes items drawn from the U.S. Department of State’s daily digest of international media opinion.