Avian Flu: Unprepared for What Isn’t Coming?

March 24th, 2006 by

We have been tracking the Avian flu pandemic – fearfully awaiting the widespread outbreak of a killer virus. Now it appears that it might not be coming, at least not from the H5 virus that has been decimating flocks of birds. According to Nicholas Wade’s article in today’s New York Times, two researchers have concluded that the avian flu virus is unlikely to become the next pandemic. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist in Japan, and Thijs Kuiken, in Rotterdam, have published their findings in Nature and Science, respectively.
That’s the good news. The bad news, of course, is that some form of pandemic is inevitable and the world is unlikely to be prepared. Scientists can only guess which virus will mutate into an easily transmissable form. Fortunately for all of us, H5 at this point needs to lodge in the lower lung, which is difficult for the virus to reach. That explains why the 187 victims to date had to live in such close proximity to the infected birds. So if you are prone to sleeping with a bunch of chickens, you are still at risk. The family members sleeping in other rooms probably are not.
Even if the sky is not falling, there is little room for complacency. The scientists quoted in the article are not pleased with the current state of preparation for a flu pandemic. They think it’s a good idea to anticipate the worst, even if it comes from a source other than Avian flu. There will indeed be a next time – it’s not a matter of if, but when. So let’s breathe a collective sigh of relief, and then get moving immediately on coordinated planning for the next pandemic.