NPR reported today on Morning Edition, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93747214, that it wasn't the flu that killed so many people in the 1918 flu pandemic. It was the bacterial pneumonia that afflicted many flu patients as a secondary infection. Because modern antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, they would play an important role in reducing illness and death.
This is significant news, because the 1918 pandemic has been held up as a model for a future pandemic, often linked to H5N1 Avian Influenza. Media coverage has been inflammatory, although it has died down somewhat in recent months. Popular news accounts have often included the caveats that the virus had not crossed the species barrier although some humans had become infected and even died, and was no danger to humans unless it did. Then most stories would go on to describe devastation and misery, bodies piled in the streets, etc. etc. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93747214. It frightened many people and has been the driver for emergency management planning to cope with closed businesses and schools, lack of food, and all the other crises that occur in natural disasters. We were primed by watching the government fail New Orleans during Katrina.
Cooler and better informed heads all along have counseled that improved communications and medical care make such a pandemic unlikely. H5N1 Avian Influenza is even more of a long shot, since the virus has not made the requisite mutations that would create it a fearsome human pathogen. Marc K. Siegel, a practicing internist and associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, took on the subject in a book, Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic. "The fear of bird flu has become particularly virulent," he writes. "There is a vaccine for this fear: it is called information with perspective."
However, birds of all kinds have come under suspicion, including migratory birds and small poultry flocks. Some people have even gotten rid of their birds and taken down bird feeders out of fear.
The actual incidence of H5N1 in humans has not been established. The death toll stands at 135 confirmed deaths, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/avian_influenza/en/. While any deaths are regrettable, other influenzas typically kill 36,000-40,000 Americans alone each year. No serology studies have been done to determine what the background infection rate may be in humans in the Southeast Asian countries where the disease has most commonly been identified. So claims about its mortality rate are unverifiable.
A pandemic is possible, as is being hit by a meteor and other natural disasters. Disaster planning is a responsible strategy for coping with the crises that are bound to happen in one place or another. Focusing attention on Bird Flu has created problems for small flock owners. Around the world, it has damaged local diets and economies, http://www.grain.org/birdflu/.
Spreading the word on this Bird Flu development may not be as easy as spreading horrifying news of pandemic destruction, but the truth is always the answer.