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ISSUE 119 VOL 20 PUBLISHED 5/12/2006

Avian influenza alarms unduly

By Jared Wall
Staff Writer

Friday, May 12, 2006

The “Avian Flu Policy” e-mail that was recently sent out to the St. Olaf community was a forward looking, painstaking step on the part of our administration, as well as extremely alarmist. Next we should draft a Leprosy Policy, or perhaps a Mono contingency (because that stuff is really scary).

A little-known fact about the bird flu is it is just that: a flu for birds. There is no evidence that the H5N1 strain of the virus can pass from human to human. The only catch is that the flu virus, by its very nature, is highly mutable, and health officials cannot readily gauge what will happen next. But in its current form, the only effect that a bird flu outbreak would have on the St. Olaf campus is to rid us of our obese crow population, as well as take some inches off football player waistlines as poultry becomes scarce in the Grill line.

All of the information to date says that bird flu kills birds by the millions. In humans, the virus has caused concern because it disproved the theory that avian flu had to pass through an intermediate host, like a pig, and jump to humans. But far from being the viral juggernaut that alarmists are predicting, only people who work in close contact with birds have contracted the virus, and of those roughly half have survived.

Luckily we have alarmist propaganda to keep us on our toes, like ABC’s May 9 release of “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America,” a television drama about a bird flu outbreak. Alarmist propaganda is in place for good reason. It scares people into thinking about explicit threats based on vague information.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) website says that each year in the United States five to 20 percent of the population gets flu, and 36,000 people die. What they do not say is how they gauge flu deaths – influenza generally kills healthy people only when combined with other illnesses, and most influenza deaths are among elderly people and very young children

Also consider the fact that health care businesses like Roche, which makes the drug Tamiflu, and Glaxo Wellcome, which produces Relenza, have a veritable monopoly on the flu vaccine market. In a number of cases they have blocked UN and world healthcare officials from producing generic versions of flu fighting drugs. To cope with restrictions and shortages, the U.S. government just gave a $1 billion contract to five pharmaceutical companies, the first part of a $7.1 billion pandemic prevention proposal. The plan is to have enough inoculations for 300 million Americans within five years.

What is wrong with this picture? First, we are paying five pharmaceutical producers to operate at maximum capacity for five years on a vaccine that will probably not stop an actual pandemic. The mutational capability of the influenza virus is unpredictable, and its continual mutation and evolution makes it impossible to develop a vaccine until after any strain actually comes into existence.

I am also unimpressed by our track record of responding to crises. If I am gauging success by the worldwide health communication network responding to avian flu outbreaks, then I feel pretty safe. If I am judging our chances based on our response to the disaster in New Orleans, well then, our goose is cooked.

President Thomforde’s message was certainly accurate in asserting that the most important method of preventing an actual epidemic starts with individual and community planning. Societal cooperation will be vital to sustaining communities and neighborhoods during an extended wave of an influenza pandemic. But you have a better chance of getting the actual flu than bird flu.

Using the word “pandemic” is extremely alarmist, especially at this stage in bird flu development. In typical American style we are perpetuating a culture of fear when the real message that should be communicated is that until H5N1 starts jumping from human to human, if you don’t want bird flu, don’t go around poking dead birds.

Staff writer Jared Wall is a senior from Sioux Falls, S.D. He majors in English with a concentration in Middle East studies.

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