Crying wolf (or maybe that should be ‘bird’)

Like many other people in Ireland, I have recently caught the rather nasty bug that is doing the rounds. For a few days I ran a bit of a fever, I had most of the cold symptoms including a runny nose and a severe cough, and for good measure I lost my voice for several days. I am nearly well again now, having gone against all advice and stayed at work throughout. My voice is still a little raspy, but I can speak, and indeed can get through a sentence or two before having to give in to a coughing fit.

There is no doubt that this particular virus has been rampaging through the country; almost everyone I have met since Christmas has either told me how they also had it, or someone in their family or circle of friends. But in spite of this, one thing I have not heard this winter – having heard it every year for the past few years – is the prediction that bird flu (or avian influenza) will sweep through the world in a major epidemic and kill many people. I first became aware of this kind of prediction about four years ago, with experts warning that avian flu would (not ‘could’ or ‘might’) cross the species barrier and rampage though the global population. In 2005 this was expected ‘at any time’, and it was predicted that the human strain of bird flu would kill up to 150 million people. Warning of a similar nature were repeated during the following years.

What should we make of this? Bird flu has indeed crossed the species barrier; we know about the handful of people who contracted it due to very close contact with infected birds. But they in turn did not pass it on, and the promised epidemics have not materialised, at any rate so far. And now I have noticed that, this winter, the bird flu predictions have disappeared, just as more ‘normal’ strains of flu appear to be spreading fast.

There seems to me to be no doubt that influenza, in its many forms, is a health risk. It has a particularly disastrous impact on more vulnerable groups in society, such as the very old and the very young. A public health programme to contain these outbreaks is sensible. But the hysteria surrounding bird flu is, for me at least, harder to understand. The evidence that it could happen at all – i.e. that humans could pass it on to others rapidly – is very sketchy and is based largely on certain assumptions that cannot actually be tested.

Most important of all, the regular instances of officials and experts crying wolf cannot be helpful, particularly when people see, year after year, that none of these predictions and warnings seems to be followed by anything very much in actual disease patterns. I now notice that even those people who were quite scared about the possible onset of an epidemic have tended to let the matter drop, for now.

This is not to say that we should all forget about this disease. The evidence from the small number of people who got bird flu suggests that it is very unpleasant and dangerous. However, as far as I know there is no evidence as yet that this can actually start an epidemic through person-to-person infection. So as all the predictions fall flat, people have got on with running their lives, and have increasingly dismissed these warnings. Which tells us again that repeated warnings about an imminent catastrophe that are not followed quickly by the catastrophe are hugely counter-productive.

We do know that influenza killed many just after the end of World War 1. If we want to avoid the same happening again, we should lay off the apocalyptic warnings and focus instead on practical measures and a calm assessment. Maybe bird flu will indeed spread to us; but nothing that we have done to alert us to potential risks will have  done any good. It is still better not to cry wolf until you have really seen that he is there.

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3 Comments on “Crying wolf (or maybe that should be ‘bird’)”

  1. Dan Sullivan Says:

    If someone was writing a heavily truncated future history to set up a new world landscape for a sci-fi series, a large economic downturn prior to the election of an African-American as President who has to deal with an enormous loss of life from a major terrorist attack or natural disaster followed by a global pandemic in his first 12 months is one of the most obvious ways.

    I’m just hoping God isn’t that much of a sci-fi fan.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Great stuff F. Turning up at the office was heroic and spread the germs far and wide. No wonder the bug is spreading. D’oh!

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