Health: A few hours after ( ;) I link-blogged this New Scientist article about a case of the H5N1 avian flu transmitting itself between humans, Boing Boing put up this entry titled ‘Bird Flu risk extremely low’, which concludes that the risk is effectively not worth worrying about.
It’s fundamentally wrong, and is well worth pointing out as a result. As Quinn at ambiguous.org says, it’s not the danger now that’s important here — it’s the potential.
- supplies of human flu vaccine in Thailand are very low, due to rich countries in the North taking up the excess; one route that flu strains pick up human-to-human transmission is through ‘co-infection’, where multiple flu strains infect the same person and swap genes.
- H5N1 has developed the ability to infect mammals already, namely cats, and therefore has another vector.
- the Chinese scientists studying H5N1 warn that ‘it is still evolving’, and the current ‘Z genotype has so far had difficulty infecting humans, but is lethal when it does. If it becomes more adept at this, it could cause a severe human pandemic.’
- the virus may have evolved human-to-human transmission. This is the biggie; a flu that transmits bird-to-human is inherently much more controllable, but once it gains the ability to jump directly to other humans, the pandemic danger becomes much higher. If it gets better at this, we could be in big trouble.
(Now, while it’s worth worrying about, it’s not us end-users who should be doing the worrying. It’s the politicians who need to ensure CDC and the WHO are funded well, the terrible state of vaccine development and production be sorted out, the lack of outbreak monitoring infrastructure be addressed, and research into these strains is funded and given a priority, in case things do go all pear-shaped influenza-wise.)