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In the News
Last Updated: 11/03/2005To Panic or not to Panic: The Skinny on Avian Flu
By now, we’ve all heard about the avian flu. The media carries almost non-stop coverage of every new possible case, every statement by a public official or doctor, and every step taken (or not taken) by governments and organizations around the world to prepare for a possible epidemic. In late September 2005, David Nabarro, the official in charge of coordinating the United Nations’ response to avian flu, generated a global scare by estimating that up to 150 million people could die from a bird flu epidemic. The concern among the general population is so great that the number of people getting flu vaccines in countries throughout the world has soared. The pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG has withheld new shipments of its flu-fighting antibiotic Tamiflu in Germany and the United States in order to prevent customers from hoarding the drug and exhausting supplies, which would make Tamiflu unavailable to people who become infected with the flu. This announcement came after consumers had wiped the shelves clean upon hearing that Tamiflu can lessen the effects of the avian flu if used within the first two days of infection.
So everyone’s scared. But what is the avian flu? And what’s the big deal? Here is a guide to what it is, and what experts are saying about it.
Although the avian flu originated in Asia, infected migratory birds have spread it westward to Eastern Europe, where cases have been reported in Russia, Romania, and Turkey. One of the greatest fears is that migratory birds may spread the disease to Africa, where the poultry industry uses far fewer sanitary controls and governments have fewer resources to detect and fight a possible outbreak. The lack of sanitation also means that conditions in Africa would be much more favorable for the virus to mutate into one that could be directly transmitted between humans.
Most experts agree that, sooner or later, the avian flu will mutate. It seems that every forty years or so, a major flu pandemic occurs. The epidemic in 1918 in Spain killed 50 million people. The last one, in Hong Kong, occurred in 1968, which means that the world is almost due for another. The danger today is that globalization has connected the world in such a way that an outbreak in Asia or anywhere else could easily spread to every other continent within hours through unsuspecting travelers carrying the virus with them on flights.
Until that occurs, people should pressure their governments to take the appropriate measures to prepare for a possible outbreak. Other than that, all that can be done is to remain calm, stay informed, and hope for the best. Although you may not want to visit Asian poultry farms anytime soon.
For more information on the avian flu, please visit the following sources:
The United States Health and Human Services Department:
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
World Health Organization:
Benjamin Hess is a Master’s candidate in International Peace Studies at the University for Peace.