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Another Flu in the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Original Article
It’s always something.

The problem is, not all somethings are created equal. But when you’ve got politicians anxious to appear alert (or deflect attention from more pressing matters), and media always desperate to huckster their wares, and people willing to say the most outrageous things in order to get attention and funding – who can tell what’s really worth fretting over?

The avian flu pandemic? If you believe the hype, millions may soon be collapsing all over the planet. But if you go with science, you’re much more likely to die from apoplexy over your tax bill.

Before proceeding to the matter, two notations. First, “pandemic” means a disease that’s everywhere, not necessarily a disease that’s savaging humanity. Second, there is no comparison between today’s as yet purely hypothetical catastrophe and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, that killed over a half million Americans and 25 to 50 million people globally.

Back then, Europe had just wrapped up World War I; its peoples were grievously weakened by poverty, hunger, disease and other privations. Much of the non-European world suffered because of their abysmally low standards of living. In the United States, the disease was spread through Army camps and other congested areas.

Today, most of the world is stronger and healthier. Medicine has made considerable advances in treating specific diseases and providing non-specific but often live-saving supportive measures. Few now need die of dehydration or pneumonia.

But that doesn’t stop the scare mongers, even those who remember the Great Swine Flu Non-Epidemic of 1976. As Michael Fumento notes in the November 21 Weekly Standard, predictions of a million fatalities “overshot the mark by 999,999 deaths (although dozens did die from the vaccine campaign). That’s something to remember amid current alarms.”

For those not old enough to remember this particular non-pandemic, there’s the more recent pandemonium over Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that, as Fumento points out, “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 the U.S. health system,’ as CNN had predicted.”

Why not? All the factors mentioned in connection with the Spanish Flu, plus the global information sharing that now makes it possible for researchers and doctors to start responding to these threats almost immediately. The SARS non-event was remarkable for historically unprecedented global cooperation – and for the relationships and procedures it created, available for future use.

Still, flu’s no fun. It kills about 36,000 Americans annually and affects between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population.

So H5N1, the currently fashionable strain of avian flu, bears watching. In order to become a significant threat, this virus would have to mutate into something that can pass directly between human beings – and it hasn’t done so since it was first discovered way back in 1959. Yet this remains possible, since flu viruses mutate so often that last year’s vaccine concoctions are usually useless against this year’s visitors, and last year’s shots do not provide much residual protection.

Such “standard” mutations need not prove excessively fatal. However, a “nightmare scenario” much beloved of the media holds that people with the traditional flu strains could also contract avian flu and the two could form a hybrid “superflu.” Possible, of course. But likely that it would happen to a few people, then spread? Astronomically unlikely or, to shift metaphors a bit, microscopically likely.

And yet, President Bush has proposed spending over $6 billion to stockpile vaccines that may prove no more useful than chicken soup. As Stephen Milloy, publisher of and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, points out, “Resources would be better spent developing technology to rapidly produce vaccines – a longstanding bottleneck in vaccine production that should have been addressed years back.”

He’s right. The best available protection against future climate change, whether warming or cooling, is to keep compounding our wealth and the technologies to deal with inherently unpredictable change. This is also the best protection against down-the-road pandemic possibilities, providing more resources and flexibility to handle whatever comes along. Crash programs that focus on single issues rather often, well, crash.

In sum, stay calm. Get your shots if you and your doctor feel that you should. Live healthy. And remember Thomas J. Binder, my grandfather. He contracted the Spanish Flu while in his thirties, sickened mightily, and died … 60 years later.

Editor’s Note:: Robert J. Cihak wrote this week’s column.

Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Senior Fellow and Board Member of the Discovery Institute and a past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple-award-winning writer who comments on medical-legal issues.

Dr. Robert J. Cihak, M.D.

Robert J. Cihak, M.D., was born in Yankton, South Dakota. He received his Bachelor's Degree from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, where he studied under the philosopher Eric Voegelin. He earned an M.D. degree at Harvard Medical School (1962-66), and did postgraduate medical training and academic work as a surgical intern at Stanford Medical Center (1966-67), diagnostic radiology resident at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston (1967-70) and Assistant Professor of Radiology, U. New Mexico Medical School, Albuquerque, (1970-71). He then practiced diagnostic radiology in Aberdeen Washington until his retirement in 1994.