The never-ending threat of pandemic flu

bird flu headline
Flickr, hugovk

The world’s attention seems to be wandering away from the threat of pandemic flu, though not because of diminished coverage.

NPR Officials prepare for another flu pandemic – just in case

Canadian Press Too soon to declare bird flu under control

Intn’l Business Times Bird flu strain H7N9 in China not yet a pandemic, but …

The stories lately seem like an attempt to counteract what one fellow, writing in the London Review of Books (oddly?), referred to as Pandemic fatigue.

When the latest bird flu surfaced in China with reports of an entirely new strain of avian influenza, many health officials as well as medical reporters sprang into action and sounded the alert.

Because of the nature of this virus, many warned this could mutate into a highly dangerous form that can pass from person-to-person. But of course, the virus may also fail to do this. It may, like many flu viruses, fail to jump species or go ahead and jump but then mutate into a milder form. We don’t know how to predict what flu will do. We also, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, don’t know what we don’t know.

There are hundreds of different flu viruses out there in circulation and they constantly mutate. Seasonal flu already kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide every year. We could call this our ‘annual flu pandemic’ but that would rob the word of its emotional power.

It’s perhaps worth noting that there is a natural tendency that favors the worrying stories beyond just trying to prompt efforts aimed at disease prevention and preparation. The news media loves scare stories and a human flu pandemic with a more deadly virus is truly scary. In the meantime, we can worry about pig flu as well as bird flu. There might be some budgetary motives, the desire by those in public health to use the scare to make the case for better funding.

These are all, or well most of them, legitimate concerns and efforts aimed at preparing us for the big one. But the question is if these scares fail to explode into a large-scale pandemic, will the public — and policy makers — be better prepared or somehow inoculated against taking the threat seriously in the future?


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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.