For the Birds or Sleeping with the Fishes? What to Make of the Avian Flu Threat

A National Review online roundtable about bird flu included this comment from ACSH's Dr. Whelan.

Scary rhetoric about "deadly bird flu" is intensifying. Predictions that infected birds will soon show up in the U.S. are likely correct. But there is a big difference between a virus that infects birds and one that spreads easily among humans. Unless mutations allowing such spread occurs, human deaths from bird flu will remain rare, so far occurring among a tiny handful of people in constant contact with infected birds.

Still, there are reasons to be wary: among humans infected with H5N1 (fewer than 200), over half died, a high mortality rate -- and the devastating flu pandemic of 1918 probably began in birds. Preparation is prudent, but panic is not: no need to hoard food as [Health and Human Services] Secretary Leavitt recently suggested. And no need to worry about eating cooked chicken -- even if infected birds appear in the U.S.

Defensive measures are underway: research into new antiviral drugs, faster techniques to make vaccines (though it's hard to produce an effective vaccine before we identify the mutated virus), and stockpiling of existing antivirals (Tamiflu and Relenza). And while worst-case scenarios grab headlines, there is a possibility that any mutated virus will be far less lethal in humans than the current virus.