Avian flu: Nothing to sneeze at

Chicken Little must have bird flu. His lesson has apparently been forgotten.

Avian influenza is the next big threat to civilization as we know it. How much of a threat it will be is not exactly known. David Nabarro, who coordinates responses to bird flu for the World Health Organization, has estimated 150 million potential deaths worldwide. The World Health Organization, in an immediate statement that contradicted Nabarro’s findings, puts a reasonable number around 2 to 7 million. Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, says as many as 300 million deaths worldwide.

These outlandishly differentiated predictions are in keeping with the history of such nonsense. Among past examples are food poisoning, West Nile, Ebola, Africanized or killer bees, school shootings, Y2K, SARS, anthrax, planet-destroying meteors and even flesh-eating bacteria. They are all dangers that were promised as potentially pandemic or catastrophic but never materialized. In fact, they never had a very high probability of materializing at all.

The same is true of the “threat” of avian flu. This form of influenza would have to emerge as a form that humans are susceptible to before it posed any real risk. The likelihood of this happening is equal to the likelihood of it emerging as a harmless strain. If it did mutate into a threat to humans, the virility, effectiveness of current medicines and potential for fatality all remain unknown. The reason nobody knows is because the virus they are discussing does not exist yet.

The threat from a potential avian flu pandemic is not impossible, of course. Very few things are impossible. UFOs and sea monsters are not impossible. If one wishes to address all the possible threats that potentially face humanity, there are far more entertaining ones than influenza to be dealt with.

The fact of the matter is that predicting any supposed, eventual disaster by cross-sectional study or computer model will have wildly unrealistic results. Not impossible results, but highly unlikely ones. Preparedness and outcome isn’t constant and never will be. Preparedness and consequences change as impacts happen. It is an axiom of basic system theory that all closed systems fail. The problem with alarmist thinking is that they view the world as a closed system, which indeed it is not. Environmentalists, physicians, and radicals of all sorts fail in this light, creating unwarranted fears that paralyze the nation.

There is evidence that the scientists making the predictions regarding bird flu are suffering from the same fallacy. For instance, they have made comparisons of the possibility with the influenza outbreak that happened in 1918. But comparisons to the outbreak in 1918 cannot possibly be relevant to a discussion regarding today. To give an idea of how far we have come since then, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was not famous until 1922. One can only fathom how far along the science of medicine has come since the advent of the PB&J. The world is quite different.

In a stress-filled society, it is hardly necessary to provide more sources of stress and fear to the stresses of everyday life. Many of these forms of stress and fear come from the government, which uses them to advance their own questionable power over people. The real problem is that stress and fear impede optimism and therefore impede a person’s ability and desire to take risks.

But without risk, there can be no heroism and no history. Despite bird flu, despite sea monsters, despite even the more realistic and more potentially scary possibility of our government manipulating fear to enhance their own sordid power, it is not always necessary for Chicken Little to follow Foxy Woxy down the hole. Sometimes it’s possible to use the umbrella of reason and logic to prevent the acorns from falling on our heads in the first place.

Jordan Capobianco is a senior majoring in English literature.