Pandemics are no laughing matter. Unfortunately, media over-hype can be worth a chuckle or two. When it comes to planning and prevention, it may be hard to tell the difference.
For more than two years now, health officials have been warning about the possibility of an avian flu pandemic. This would happen if a flu virus known as H5N1 evolves into something that easily is transmitted from fowl to humans, and then from humans to other humans. At first, media hype made this seem not only inevitable, but imminent. Government agencies hopped to. People seemed to treat every bird death as if it were a sign of the apocalypse.
And then ...nothing.
This year's flu strain had nothing to do with H5N1. But that doesn't mean the virus is extinct, and it doesn't mean the danger has passed.
Just last weekend, officials slaughtered more than 27,000 chickens and ducks in Bangladesh after avian flu was confirmed at a farm. At about the same time, in the town of Tangerang, Indonesia, a 29-year-old woman died from the same flu. That brings the total confirmed death count worldwide to 224 humans.
That still pales in comparison to the tens of thousands who die yearly from the regular flu, just in the United States. But the danger of this slowly mutating virus is that too many people will be caught unawares because they assumed the authorities were crying wolf.
When the heat was on, the federal government developed a strategy for countering avian flu that included more than 300 specifics tasks spread among several departments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was given responsibility for most of these tasks. But a report by the inspector general, released last week, found that the government has not tested these tasks. Therefore, it can't ensure an effective response should a pandemic materialize.
The report said one agency had failed to update its Web site so that it can provide timely information about avian flu outbreaks. This is especially important for poultry producers and others whose entire flock could be destroyed if an infection is found.
The lack of media hype recently has had one positive effect. It has kept people from panicking needlessly. No one should avoid eating chickens or other birds for fear of H5N1. But people do need to be prepared.
Perhaps modern communications and enhanced medical knowledge have kept the disease from mutating. Infected flocks are destroyed immediately to keep this from happening. If so, that is good news. But it is not the final word.