Where did Bird Flu go and is there still a risk?

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It sometimes seems that these days there is just one health scare after another and the saturation point in the general population as to whether they are taken seriously any more has been reached. Scare tactics by the Press sell papers in the first instance and people take precautions such as hand washing but when the decimating pandemic fails to sweep the globe, interest wanes. Hopefully, a few good habits such as using a hankie and using handwash gel remain behind, but probably most of those also disappear with time. Ironically the sector of society who should take the most precautions – the elderly – are the most entrenched in habits and so unlikely to take new things on board.

To take Bird Flu (H5N1) as an example, the incidence of the virus in birds is relatively common, with varying results in the population but when it jumps the species barrier, which it does rarely, the mortality is high around 60%. It is mainly spread by contact with dead or dying birds and this is why it appeared to be on the verge of a pandemic, because in areas where it had jumped the barrier there was a wave of cases, with high mortality. Fewer than 600 cases have been reported since the initial scare in 1997, so in the scheme of things, the risk was never high and for the vast majority of the population was never really a risk at all.

Every year there seems to be another dread disease to worry us. Statistics used in medical reportage are usually seriously flawed and in the case of epidemics often criminally so. Swine flu was a threat reported first in 1958, although it has since been suggested as one of the causative organisms in the great influenza pandemic – the Curse of the Spanish Lady – in 1918 which killed more people worldwide than the First World War. However, since 1958 very few cases have been confirmed with correspondingly few deaths.

Since reliable diagnostic tools have been available, more and more serious and life threatening infectious and contagious diseases seem to make the news every year. The reasons for this can easily be explained by several recent increases in human activity, on top of better diagnostics. People now travel more and in closer proximity than ever before. One person with a virulent viral or bacterial infection will have soon shared with everyone in a crowded and air conditioned plane. In a two hour flight, they have probably been in contact, either real or virtual, with twenty times as many people as they would have met in a week one hundred years ago. Then, when a flurry of infection does show up, social media, rolling news and the internet spreads the news around the globe faster than any virus can travel, so it is big news almost as the sound of the first sneeze is still dying away. All of this can cost governments a fortune, but if recent scares have taught everyone to sneeze into a tissue and wash their hands often, it will not have been in vain.

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