News has been full of Avian Flu lately, as if we are all going to die tomorrow.
For two years, a deadly strain of chicken flu known as H5N1 has been killing birds in Asia. While slightly more than 100 people are known to have contracted the disease, and 60 of them have died, there is still no sign that the flu has begun to spread from person to person.
That hasn’t prevented a recent outbreak of apocalyptic warnings from health officials and experts about the specter of a worldwide pandemic. In Hurricane Katrina’s wake, health officials in the United States are talking more and more about pandemic preparation. Some of these ideas — such as stockpiling vaccines — are sensible, whether or not bird flu turns into a human disease and begins to spread rapidly.
But other ideas aren’t. A few scientists have suggested “priming” people with a dose of the new vaccine against H5N1 before we even know whether a pandemic is coming. Vaccinating large numbers of people against a disease that may never appear carries its own risks. Remember the swine flu debacle of 1976? At least 25 people died from vaccine complications and no epidemic ever erupted. That should be warning enough.
This story was followed by an online chat with Ms. Orendt on Monday. I recommend both of these articles as an antidote to panic.