The Magazine

Fuss and Feathers

Pandemic panic over the avian flu.

Nov 21, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 10 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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"THE INDICATION IS THAT we will see a return of the 1918 flu virus that is the most virulent form of flu," warns America's top health official. "In 1918, half a million people died. The projections are that this virus will kill one million Americans . . . "

A quotation ripped from today's papers about an impending "bird flu" pandemic? No, the year was 1976 and the prediction of a deadly "swine flu" overshot the mark by 999,999 deaths (although dozens did die from the vaccine campaign). That's something to remember amid the current alarms. Another is that we've been here before with the identical virus over which the feathers are now flying, avian influenza type H5N1, which first hit poultry flocks in 1997. "Race to Prevent World Epidemic of Lethal 'Bird Flu,'" and "Hong Kong 'Bird Flu' Could be the Next Big Outbreak," blared the headlines then. The world death toll from that "wave"? Six. And let's not forget the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) two years ago, which led to 750 stories in the New York Times and Washington Post--one per death worldwide, as it turned out. The 71 U.S. cases of SARS, which resulted in zero deaths, did not "Overwhelm U.S. Health System," as CNN had predicted.

None of which is to say there won't be another flu pandemic. There were three in the last century, after all. But that gives us absolutely no idea when the next will come, nor whether it will be any relative of H5N1, nor what its impact will be. Two of those 20th-century pandemics weren't particularly severe, while the other was catastrophic. (Pandemic, by the way, does not mean "deadly epidemic"--it means "worldwide epidemic.")

What we can say with confidence is that there is never such a thing as helpful hysteria. And the line between informing the public and starting a panic is being crossed every day now by politicians, public health officials, and journalists.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been handling numerous fearful phone calls from the public and the media, fielding questions about the safety of bird feeders and Thanksgiving turkeys. "It's been insane," spokesman Dave Daigle told MSNBC. In a recent Q&A session with Wendy Orent, science writer and author of the book Plague, a Nashville resident asked why "don't we just kill off all the domestic birds and poison the food on the migratory bird routes?"

Headlines like "Flu Pandemic Could Kill 150 Million, U.N. Warns" (Reuters) certainly haven't helped. Never mind that the figure was tossed off by a single official who provided a range of "5 million to 150 million." (Translation: "We haven't the foggiest.") Similarly, the media have generally morphed the federal government's leaked estimate of 200,000 to 1.9 million deaths to simply "1.9 million deaths." Also not helping is the media propensity to seek out the most alarmist "experts."

High on the list of scaremongers is Laurie Garrett, former Newsday reporter and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Garrett is to pandemics what Paul Ehrlich is to population growth, having amassed fame and fortune by being consistently and spectacularly wrong. Just as he became famous predicting a Population Bomb that fizzled, she came to prominence through a 1995 book, The Coming Plague. No, it hasn't come yet, but--trust her--it will. Garrett's rise began with her prediction of an Ebola virus pandemic. This was notwithstanding the fact that Ebola is just about last on any realistic list of possible pandemic pathogens, since it's terribly difficult to transmit. But guess who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Ebola coverage? Lessons like this aren't lost on other journalists.

Then there's University of Minnesota School of Public Health professor Michael Osterholm, who has spent the last several years trying desperately to outdo Garrett. He came up with a worldwide avian flu death toll estimate of 180-360 million simply by extrapolating the estimated death toll from the Spanish flu of 1918-19 to today's world population.

But the winner in this grim game of one-upmanship is Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, who claimed on ABC News's Primetime on September 15, "We could have a billion people dying worldwide."

When I later questioned him on this figure, he rather sheepishly admitted he meant to say "one billion ill." Quite a faux pas. But Garrett and Osterholm were on the same show, and neither made a peep to correct the misstatement. ABC used it as part of the introduction. "It could kill a billion people worldwide, make ghost towns out of parts of major cities, and there is not enough medicine to fight it," declared the somber voiceover. "It is called the avian flu." So the billion figure is out there and, no, this single article won't succeed in pulling it back.