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Excerpted from The Standard, December 25, 2006, Volume 012, Issue 15
The Chicken Littles Were Wrong
Bird Flu Threat Flew the Coop

By Michael Fumento

It's that time of year again — avian flu panic season. As the weather turns colder in the northern hemisphere and the flu starts making its annual rounds, the media and their anointed health experts are chirping and squawking once again about how we could be blindsided by a pandemic that some have estimated could kill a billion persons worldwide. New books like The Coming Avian Flu Pandemic join last year's The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu.

A year ago in these pages I clucked at all this, laying out the evidence that the alarmists were wrong, that avian influenza type H5N1 would not become readily transmissible from human to human and therefore not become pandemic--meaning a global epidemic. (See "Fuss and Feathers: Pandemic Panic over the Avian Flu," November 21, 2005.) Some of the arguments I made have quietly caught on. For instance, health officials, including National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci, no longer talk about an "overdue pandemic" (because there is no pattern to when pandemics occur; they are never "due" or "overdue"). But the damage has been done. A Harvard School of Public Health survey of adults who have children revealed that 44 percent think it "likely" or "somewhat likely" there will be "cases of bird flu among humans in the U.S. during the next 12 months." Less than a fifth of respondents considered it "not at all" likely.

Not coincidentally, an avian flu bureaucracy has become entrenched. Like all bureaucracies, it will fight to survive and thrive, egging on governments to provide ever more money. The alarmingly titled 2006 Guide to Surviving Bird Flu is published by no less than the Department of Health and Human Services. Never mind that no one in this country has yet even contracted bird flu. Congress last year allocated $3.8 billion to prevent the ballyhooed catastrophe (Bush requested almost twice that amount). The latest "scary news," promulgated in the November 23 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by über-alarmist Robert Webster of St. Jude Memorial Children's Hospital, is that human cases of H5N1 contracted from birds are continuing to increase. Indeed, confirmed cases for 2006 are running ahead of those for last year. But the difference is slight; 97 worldwide for all of last year versus 111 through the end of November 2006. This difference could be entirely explained by better surveillance. Moreover, the real concern is not sporadic bird-to-human transmission, but human-to-human transmission. Far more people die of tuberculosis in an hour than all those known to have died from H5N1.

So it's time to revisit the allegations and show that as small as the risk was a year ago, it's nevertheless dropped considerably since.

Mutation and Reassortment

A flu pandemic can come about in two ways. One way is for the virus to randomly mutate to become easily transmissible between humans. "Randomly" is the key word here. There are no evolutionary pressures to make H5N1 adapt better to humans. Given enough time, H5N1 might mutate so that it could under the right conditions become pandemic. But that could take millions of years, during which time it would be more likely to mutate itself out of existence. H5N1 was first identified in Scottish chickens in 1959. It has been flying around the globe for close to half a century and hasn't done a number on us yet. There's absolutely no reason to think it will pick this year or next to do so.

Another scenario is that somebody with human flu could contract avian flu at the same time and the two flus could "reassort" into hybrid avian-human flu. The last two flu epidemics in the 20th century — 1957-58 and 1968-69 — were caused by such hybrids. We can help reduce this possibility by vaccinating as many people as possible (especially Southeast Asian poultry farmers) against human flu, thus reducing the potential number of "mixing vessels." Programs underway to keep farmers away from poultry droppings and spittle (birds don't sneeze or cough) will also help.

Ferreting Out the Truth

A fascinating study in the August 8, 2006, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences would seem to indicate we're already pretty safe from a human-avian hybrid. Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted three separate studies with ferrets, which are among the few animals known to suffer from and transmit human flu. The ferrets were infected with several H5N1 strains in addition to a common human influenza virus (H3N2) that circulates almost every year. The infected animals were then either placed in the same cage with uninfected ferrets to test transmissibility by close contact or in adjacent cages with perforated walls to test spread of the virus from respiratory droplets.

The research showed that the H3N2 virus passed easily by droplets (ferrets do sneeze and do not use handkerchiefs) but the H5N1 virus did not spread--the same thing we're seeing in humans infected with H5N1 from birds.

Separately, the scientists used gene splicing to create a hybrid H5N1/H3N2 virus. In other words, rather than letting nature take its course and seeing if the viruses would reassort, they guaranteed that reassortment occurred. They found these hybrids also did not pass easily between the animals. Moreover, ferrets injected with the reassorted virus showed symptoms less severe than those with the pure avian flu. Reassortment appears to have weakened the virus.

In a final study, CDC researchers passed a hybrid virus through a series of ferrets to see if it would accumulate genetic changes necessary to transmit more easily. This tested the mutation factor. The scientists found this introduced only one genetic change in the virus but didn't enhance its transmissibility.

Other researchers have found the explanation for a phenomenon that was already clear but unexplained--that H5N1 virtually never spreads from human to human and, if it does, it's only after prolonged contact. This contrasts with human flu, which can be contracted via a single cough or sneeze. A Nature magazine study published last March found that while avian flu can infect human lungs, it cannot infect most of the cells lining the nose, throat, and sinuses. Moreover, it tends not to penetrate deeply into the lungs. "It has been an enigma why people get sick and die from H5N1 avian flu virus, but the virus does not spread well in humans," study leader and University of Wisconsin virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka told WebMD. "Our finding explains it."

That Allegedly Horrendous Death Rate

Ersatz experts like Laurie Garrett, a renowned pandemic panic-monger, warn of a horrific mortality rate from the bird flu virus. "Right now in human beings, it kills 55 percent of the people it infects," she told ABC News's Primetime last year. St. Jude's alarmist Webster referred to a similar death rate in his New England Journal of Medicine article, and the media routinely parrot it. By comparison, the devastating 1918-1919 Spanish flu is believed to have killed 2.5 percent to 5 percent of those it infected. The death rate in a typical flu season is less than 1 percent. It's true that, of bird flu cases recorded by the World Health Organization, 59 percent have died. But this is a mere artifact with an obvious explanation: Only people with the most severe cases go to the hospital and become part of the dataset.

As to what the true mortality rate is, over a three-month period in 2004, Swedish and Vietnamese researchers studied 45,478 residents in a rural district in Vietnam that had H5N1 outbreaks to find out how many had contact with sick birds and how many had flu-like illnesses. They published their results in January 2006 in the Archives of Internal Medicine. They found that of 8,149 who had a flu-like illness, 650 to 750 probably caught it from birds. Yet for all of 2004, the World Health Organization data indicated only 29 Vietnamese cases with 20 deaths. Thus what might seem to be a horrific mortality rate of almost two in three, or 69 percent, appears to be actually around one in 140 or 0.71 percent. This, in the rural portion of a Communist country with a state-run medical system. That 0.71 percent is in the same range as seasonal human flu.

More good news from Vietnam, incidentally, is that it has reported zero cases in 2006.

Hysteria over an avian flu pandemic has been very good for the Chicken Little media, authors, ambitious health officials, drug companies, and even Bush bashers. (An alarmist fantasy published by Nature magazine in May 2005 concluded by predicting a pandemic outbreak in December of last year, laying the blame entirely at the president's feet.) But even as many of the panic-mongers have begun to lie low, the vestiges of hysteria remain — as do the misallocations of billions of dollars from more serious health problems. Too bad no one ever holds the doomsayers accountable for the damage they've done.

Michael Fumento is a writer based in Washington, D.C.