Media eagerly covers bird flu outbreak in China

I don't mean to make light of the possibility that a handful of human deaths in China apparently caused by a new strain of bird flu could produce a global flu pandemic. But there is a tendency in the media -- of which I am a part, and also often guilty -- along with some in the public health community to get a bit too excited about these bird flu outbreaks.
bird flu headline
Flickr, hugovk

I don’t mean to make light of the possibility that a handful of human deaths in China apparently caused by a new strain of bird flu could produce a global flu pandemic. But there is this tendency in the media — of which I am a party to — to get a bit too excited about these bird flu outbreaks.

NY Times – China Escalates Response to Bird Flu Outbreak

Outbreak! Escalation! We like words like that in our headlines.

Now, there is theoretical justification for concern – because theoretically a new bird flu virus could mutate into a human flu that we have little immunity against. You’ve seen the movie, right? Still, it’s important to emphasize that this hasn’t happened yet, probably won’t and even if it does become something humans can pass on to each other, most flu viruses tend to become weaker the more they spread. Most the hype tends to come from the media, making a good faith effort to cover something in global health that experts say is important and also happens to be fairly sensational in concept. A marriage made in  heaven. And it’s only fair to note that some in the public health community fuel the hype as well, by focusing on what could happen as opposed to what is most likely to happen. Given the cuts we’ve seen to many government programs, you can hardly blame some health experts for using these outbreaks to make the case for funding the kind of basic public health, epidemiology and research we’ve all come to take for granted.

But to put this all in context, let’s remember we already have a global flu pandemic every year that kills tens of thousands of people. It’s called seasonal flu.

So far, Chinese officials say six people have died from a new bird flu virus known as H7N9, are destroying 20,000 birds sold in a market in Shanghai.

USA Today – US officials watching outbreak, preparing to make a vaccine

Wash Post – Bird flu death toll rises to six

ABC – Bird flu deaths prompt Shanghai poultry slaughter

Shanghai poultry slaughter. Nice one! For a more staid review of this new virus, go to this fact sheet on H7N9 by the WHO.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.