Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bird flu = bull shit

Yes, it's time to call bullshit on the avian influenza histrionics that have seemingly refused to go away. From the beginning, I was a professed disbeliever in the phenomenon, and the reason was that any time we start hearing gloom-and-doom predictions about a coming "killer pandemic" (whether it be in the form of 'flu, SARS, or bees), approximately nothing happens.

I could have just jumped on here and started spouting off about the relatively small number of people who have contracted -- and much less, died from -- the bird flu, but I decided that I'd do a little research. I turned to the Center for Disease Control.

Let's back up just a little, though, first. At some point, every year, usually beginning around November, the officially-recognized "flu season" begins. I've been very aware of this since I joined the Army, since each year, I've been required to receive an influenza vaccination. This year, like last year, it was administered nasally. Since nearly the entire dose that's squirted into my nostrils invariably has simply dribbled down the back of my throat, the benefits of nasal administration of the vaccine are lost on me, and I'm not inclined to change my mind about whatever benefits it's supposed to offer.

This year, after having received this critical vaccination, I went home to New York for Christmas and got the 'flu anyway. I stayed in bed, shivered, sneezed, and moaned for about 48 hours, and after that, I was fine. The CDC suggests that out of the 5-20 percent of Americans who will contract influenza this year, most will recover within one or two weeks.

That's not the case for everyone, however; in fact, this year alone, it's estimated by the Center that 36,000 Americans will die due to influenza-related symptoms. That's the entire population of a town.

If that sounds grim, bear in mind that it happens every year. 114,000-200,000 more will be hospitalized due to influenza symptoms and complications; again, a yearly occurrence.

It's interesting to note that there are three "regular" types of influenza virus: Influenzas A (which is subdivided into H1N1 and H3N2) and B (which is not subdivided), are included in each year's 'flu shot; and Influenza C, which is considered mild enough to be of little or no concern.

Avian Influenza A (H5N1) has been discovered a couple times in North America already. One case involved two workers involved in culling operations begun after a flock of chickens in British Columbia, Canada, was found to host the virus in 2004. According to the CDC:

Both patients developed conjunctivitis (eye infection) and other flu-like
symptoms. Their illnesses resolved after treatment with the antiviral medication

Ten others may have contracted avian flu after contact with the culled birds, the report says, but "[t]here is currently no evidence of person-to-person transmission of avian influenza from this outbreak."
In November 2003, a patient with serious underlying medical conditions was admitted to a hospital in New York with respiratory symptoms. One of the initial laboratory tests identified an influenza A virus that was thought to be H1N1. The patient recovered and went home after a few weeks. Subsequent confirmatory tests conducted in March showed that the patient had been infected with an H7N2 avian influenza A virus.

Curious that the report notes the patient's "serious underlying medical conditions," especially since, even after contracting the bird flu he seemed to have pulled through okay.

But that's just North America, where so far we haven't been "infected." What about Asia, where all these filthy diseases seem to come from?

Looking at the CDC's outbreak report on the region, it seems that since 1997, it's broken down something like this:

Hong Kong - 18 people contracted H5N1, six died.
Thailand and Vietnam - 35 reported cases of H5N1 infection resulted in 23 deaths.

Not exactly apocalyptic numbers -- that is, of course, unless you're an Asian chicken. In late 2003 to early 2004, eight Asian countries (Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam) reported that more than 100 million of the birds either died from or were destroyed because of the disease.

The supposed Michael Crichton-esque "outbreak" of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -- someone needs help with their adjectives) in 2003 was a similar paper tiger. Despite dire predictions of what was purported to be something just short of a global population-annihilating plague, SARS infected a total of 8,098, of whom 774 died.

Assuredly, a larger number than have been killed by avian flu, but still a pittance compared to the number who lose their lives thanks to the "regular, old 'flu." Some perspective? If a similar "outbreak" of SARS was to hit the United States during a year whose influenza season was close to the yearly average in mortality rate, then influenza types A and B could be considered to be 46 times more deadly than SARS. And with avian influenza mortalities where they're at now, you could reasonably consider the "regular flu" to be more than 1,241 times as deadly.

Maybe the math is quick, dirty, and unfounded in scientific observation. But the point is that unless you're entering the next neighborhood cockfight as a contestant, you probably have nothing to worry about from the phantasm known as The Bird Flu.

Things that concern me more than avian influenza include:
- Alien mind control
- Being struck by lightning
- Paying my gambling debts (of which I have none)
- Spontaneous combustion
- Killer bees (which have reportedly killed 1,000 people in the Americas)