Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Before swine flu there was bird flu, lest we forget

The Times, September 5, 2005:

A British flu pandemic is inevitable and will put the lives of tens of thousands of people at risk, according to the country's top medical officer. Sir Liam Donaldson said today that it was a "biological inevitability" that when the pandemic arrives, it would have a "serious impact". The Chief Medical Officer for England said that the government's contingency plans were looking at 50,000 deaths in the UK from the pandemic. He added that a pandemic could arrive at any time and that it was impossible to state that Britain was ready to cope. Experts have said that avian flu will eventually mutate so that it can spread easily between humans, leading to a pandemic strain.

A Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs bulletin on January 26, 2008, updates the epidemic's toll:

DEFRA has today confirmed that a sixth mute swan collected on 21 January as part of wild bird surveillance in the same area in Dorset has tested positive for highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza. Avian influenza is a disease of birds. While it can pass very rarely and with difficulty to humans, this usually requires extremely close contact with infected birds, particularly faeces.

Sir Liam looks into his crystal ball in The Guardian July 16, 2009:

UP to 65,000 people could die from swine flu in the UK in a worst-case scenario set out by the chief medical officer. It is expected that as many as 60 per cent of the population will eventually become infected, but only around 30 per cent will fall ill and experience significant symptoms. That would produce 65,000 deaths if the mortality rate was as high as 0.35 per cent, and 19,000 deaths if it was a rate of 0.1 per cent.

The Daily Mail takes up the story yesterday:

THE swine flu outbreak was a "false pandemic" driven by drug companies that stood to make billions of pounds from a worldwide scare, a leading health expert has claimed. Wolfgang Wodarg, head of health at the Council of Europe, accused the makers of flu drugs and vaccines of influencing the World Health Organisation's decision to declare a pandemic. Dr Wodarg's claims come as it emerged the British government is desperately trying to offload up to 1 billion [doses] of swine flu vaccine, ordered at the height of the scare. But with fewer than 5000 in England catching the disease last week and just 251 deaths overall, Dr Wodarg has branded the H1N1 outbreak as "one of the greatest medical scandals of the century".

Ross Clark in The Times yesterday:

There was a time when, if you read a scientific scare story, you tended to put it down to the overactive imagination of a red-top journalist. No longer: nowadays it is outwardly sober government scientists who spin the biggest scares. They know they can get away with it because laymen have an irrational respect for words uttered by scientists. It will be a good 50 years before anyone can make a definitive judgment on the biggest scientific scare of our times: climate change. But I can't read the latest prediction for man-made flood and tempest without thinking of all those millions who have failed to die from swine flu and the other grim fates predicted by government scientists.

Indeed.

Though I don't accept the simplistic notion that these scares are just the products of the shenanigans of evil drug companies.

As Andrew Sullivan observed, (at least before he went insane), it is those same evil drug companies that produce the drugs that keep his HIV infection under control and hence keep him alive long after he should have been dead.

Now I'm sure the eyes of any pharmaceutical company executive worth his salt light up and pulse quickens at word of a new disease or epidemic.

But there is more to this than that.

We live in a time blighted by marketing and public relations spin. A world were organisations and individuals are always assessing the potential for publicity and self-promotion in every situation.

I think Ross Clark in The Times is closer to the truth than Dr Wodarg. The drug companies didn't have the arm of the director general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, twisted up behind her back when she gravely intoned back in April last year that with swine flu "all of humanity is under threat."

Even at that time it appeared clear to me that there was something odd about the epidemiology of the disease when you compared the experience of the rest of the world to Mexico.

The hype never matched the reality and I don't think the reality ever justified the hype.

But Dr Chan would have been in her element, sitting on that raised dais in the absurdly grand and ostentatious headquarters of the WHO. Let's face it, the United Nations is a peculiar organisation. Full of its own importance, but no doubt bitterly aware of how marginal it is in the actual scheme of things and desperate for any opportunity to put on a display of gravitas and relevance. How better to do that than by talking up the imminent danger of swine flu.

However, the UN and the WHO were hardly alone in this.

All too many scientists and academics saw an opportunity to raise their own media profiles and, let's face it, you don't raise your profile by being calm, considered and reticent.

You've got to get in the media scrum and work at attracting attention.

So there is always there temptation to 'over egg the pudding' as a way of getting that attention.

Often no doubt self-justified in terms of the ends justifying the means. A number of climate scientists are on record, as is "Captain" Paul Watson (apparently he's actually never held a captain's ticket) of Sea Shepherd, that to get noticed you have to exaggerate and push the envelope of what is true.

But as I've said in relation to climate science many times in the past, (and the Climategate email scandal has only reemphasised this), if your case is so strong you should not in the end have to exaggerate or lie.

If you do have to exaggerate or lie then there is probably some fundamental weakness in your argument.

Swine flu is just the latest in a string of overwrought and hysterical warnings about the next contagion that was just about to take us all away in our sleep if we weren't careful.

Though here I think Mr Clark is being a little self-serving. The ever sensation hungry media plays its role helping to fan these usually absurd panics.

I think it was Newsweek, (could have been Time, but who cares and what does it matter?), that Christened the Ebola virus as the "Apocalypse Bug."

This for an illness than killed fewer than 900 people, all of them in a relatively confined area of central Africa.

And the more I think about it now, the more I am increasingly sceptical that another great flu (or whatever) pandemic is inevitable. (I'm using pandemic here more in its demotic, not technical, usage.) The frightening death toll of the pandemic that followed the Great War wasn't simply a function of the virulence of the virus, though that was obviously a factor.

However, it struck at a time, just as the world had completed a devastating global war, when large numbers of poorly fed people who were jammed together in highly unsanitary conditions provided the perfect conditions for incubation and transmission.

Whereas we live in a world now that is healthier in real terms in a way that people back then possibly couldn't even imagine.

As bad as poverty is in some places still, it is nothing compared to then. It is also highly unlikely that we will ever see another world war.

So I'm not sure that the social and political circumstances probably needed for another such pandemic will be in place. There will be new variants if influenza for sure, and I think it is inevitable that one of these will be virulent in a way that the most recent ones have not been.

Many people will die if and when this happens. I'm just not so sure the nightmare scenarios are really that believable.

But the danger here is to the standing of science and reason itself.

Another thing that characterises our world today is the growing tide of irrationality and superstition.

We have universities, once the bastions of the Enlightenment, actually teaching things like naturopathy and homoeopathy, along with other kinds of idiotic rubbish that we know is not supported by any actual evidence.

In fact the evidence clearly shows than none of this nonsense works at all.

Political correctness and the dulling fripperies of Post Modernism have worked their way through the academy, and now some say that primitive tribal beliefs have to be accorded equal standing with the results of science because science has now been classified as a "white" and "western" discourse which cannot be "privileged" (no, honestly, this is how these wankers actually talk and write - I'm not making this up, you know) against other forms of "knowing."

Fuck me. It's come to this?

So this is a dangerous time for scientists and academics to chase headlines and "relevance."

Sooner or later it all blows up in their faces and the reputation of science and reason takes another hit and gives the loons, the carpetbaggers and the shysters and snakeoil salesmen a free kick.

Posted via email from Garth's posterous

1 comment:

Chiropractic Marketing said...

Bird flu is a serious illness that affects birds. Especially chickens, That can be spread from birds to humans and that can cause death. Recently the breaking out of bird flu has taken us aback. We could never think of such kind of problem in our country. However thanks to the Almighty that it could not break out in an epidemic form because of the timely intervention of the government and people's consciousness about the matter. The cause of bird flu in our country could not be detected. It was thought that it might have been carried and spread by the imported chickens from our neighboring countries like Thailand and China. Because the breaking out of bird flu in an epidemic form has been seen in China and Thailand. Poultry farming has had a positive effect on the social economic condition in our country. It helped many rural poor women to break the chain of poverty and see better days to their lives. But the recent breaking out of bird flu has shadowed their smiling faces into gloomy ones and clouded their foreheads. It has emptied their fertile farms and turned the firms into barren hands. We have seen the hearts. However, it is heartening that our government has taken an all out efforts to give loans to the people engaged in poultry farming on easy terms to keep their income generating industry on and to bring about better days and see the gloomy faces glowing with beatific smile and keep their heads above all consuming poverty.