The avian flu is turning into a new excuse for the media and politicians to over-hype an issue and inspire fear in the general public. When SARS broke out, people were paranoid, fearing an extremely deadly worldwide outbreak even though you had a better chance of dying from falling down the stairs or being kicked in the head by a donkey than by catching SARS. Now the wheels are turning for avian flu, and if any of you hear any claims passed on to you, I'd advise you to do a bit of research before believing it and telling everyone you know (in fact, this rule really applies to anything, but particularly something that the media seems to be using to cause mass fear). For example, the Sydney Morning Herald is reporting that three pigeons imported to Australia from Canada tested positive for avian flu antibodies (but do not have the disease itself), but by the time the news got to my stepfather, this story had mutated into one of three pigeons in Ballarat catching avian flu! In addition, my mother and stepdad were telling me that avian flu had mutated into a form that spreads from human to human, but as it turns out, the BBC is reporting that no such mutation has occurred and that there are no confirmed cases of inter-human transmission, though there have been a few isolated cases of probable transmission between two people in very close contact. The New England Journal of Medicine confirms this, stating "[h]uman-to-human transmission ... has been suggested in several household clusters" and that findings suggest "the local virus strains may be adapting to humans ... [but] epidemiologic and virologic studies are needed to confirm these findings" (emphasis mine in both quotes).
The media has also offered comparisons with the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic at every opportunity, taking pains to state some estimate this caused the deaths of up to fifty million people. This is of course going to cause some alarm when coupled with the suggestion from experts that avian flu may soon mutate into a virus capable of causing a pandemic in humans. What this fails to take into account is the fact that in 1918, viruses were not understood and antibiotics were non-existent! Furthermore, Western countries were ravaged by years of conflict and war shortages, the typical breeding ground for outbreaks of disease. In stark contrast, science today has an understanding of viruses and the living conditions and medical facilities of Western countries are significantly higher. We are far better equipped to tackle a pandemic than we were almost ninety years ago. I wish the same could be said for impoverished third world countries.
So am I worried? You bet I'm still worried. At the moment, I'm calm as the disease has not mutated into a form that can efficiently be transferred from human to human, but I'm not discounting the potential is there. I'm less relaxed than I was when SARS hit for two reasons: firstly, SARS was concentrated in Hong Kong, a very Westernised part of Asia that swiftly dealt with the virus, while avian flu is appearing in much less advanced countries, including some that I'm sure would be happier to cover up the existence of avian flu than admit to its presence and take the proper steps. Secondly, SARS wasn't spread by migratory birds, but avian flu is, and it has reached Romania and Turkey. We don't even need infected planeloads of passengers to spread this one - the birds can do it for us. So while the information and statistics I outlined above are comforting to me, I certainly do not believe there is good cause to sit back and relax just yet.
At the end of the day, avian flu has killed sixty people since first being detected in humans in 1997. Right now, with no mutation and no inter-human transmission of the virus, you're more likely to be murdered than die of avian flu, and if I remember correctly, the probability of an American being murdered is roughly 0.005% and even lower in other Western countries. Your typical murder victim knows their killer, so ask yourself, do you know anyone who wants you dead?