About that Impending Bird Influenza Pandemic

Saw this item at Boing! Boing!,

World Health Organization’s bird flu warning: 100 million deaths

Matt Vine sez: Since yesterday, the rest of the world has been buzzing with news of the World Health Organization’s warnings of a impending flu pandemic that could kill up to 100 million. These warnings are suspiciously missing from American news sites – we get things like “Godzilla honored with ‘Walk of Fame’ star” from CNN’s front page.” Link

posted by Mark Frauenfelder at 08:47:00 AM

Of coures if you actually bother to read any of the articles that Boing! Boing! links to you, you learn that the impending epidemic is not so impending.

In fact, there is no evidence that the bird flue can be spread from human to human, which would be necessary before it could become a pandemic. There are apparently two cases of bird flu where researchers haven’t yet figured out how the individuals contracted the disease, but otherwise all cases of the bird flu have been transmitted directly from birds to human beings. It is telling that unlike the SARS outbreak, so far there appear to be no cases of infections among health care workers who have treated victims.

So why is the WHO going around saying that there’s this impending pandemic? Well, the short version is that it isn’t. The long version is that its Pacific regional director made the claims about the bird flu pandemic, and the rest of WHO appears to be scratching its head about where he came up with these claims.

For example, here’s the New York Times’ coverage,

Dr. Shigeru Omi, the W.H.O.’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said that if a pandemic should strike – an outcome he termed “very, very likely” – governments should be prepared to close schools, office buildings and factories to slow the rate of new infections. They also should work out emergency staffing to prevent a breakdown in basic public services like electricity and transportation, he said.

. . .

W.H.O. officials in Geneva said later that they had not received an advance copy of Dr. Omi’s remarks and did not know the basis for his estimates and why he believed a pandemic was so likely.

. . .

In sounding the alarm about avian influenza, “W.H.O. is trying to raise concern because we’re concerned, but W.H.O. is not trying to scare the planet,” Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the agency, said in a telephone interview.

“No one knows how many are likely to die in the next human influenza pandemic,” or even when it will occur, said Dr. Klaus Stöhr, the agency’s top influenza expert. “The numbers are all over the place.”

The same thing happened with SARS, you might remember, where there were a few individuals who claimed SARS was going to turn into a pandemic.

Obviously such a pandemic is always possible should a virus like the bird flu mutate into a highly communicable form, but a pandemic is far from impending.


W.H.O. Official Says Deadly Pandemic Is Likely if the Asian Bird Flu Spreads Among People. Keith Bradsher and Lawrence K. Altman, The New York Times, November 30, 2004.

Post Revisions:

There are no revisions for this post.

Leave a Reply