Dominic Lawson: I'm not scared of avian flu (and I've had it)

There is not a single recorded proven example of it spreading between humans. Not one
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The Independent Online

It was the truckload of "organic" pigeon droppings that almost did for me. Five years ago this ephemerally trendy means of fertilisation worked very well in helping our vegetables grow big and strong. But the inhalation of spores from the excreta of infected pigeons does not have the same beneficial effect on humans.

Obviously I didn't know that then. So when my flu turned into pneumonia it never occurred to me to tell the local GP about the pigeon pooh. He therefore gave me repeated courses of antibiotics that would have knocked typical pneumonia firmly on the head. When I just became sicker he had me seen by a specialist in lung infections at a hospital in Tunbridge Wells.

The specialist looked from the chest X rays to my notes and back again, and then said: "Hmmmm ... do you keep poultry?" "Yes," I said, "chickens." But I vehemently denied it when he then asked if I was very fond of them, "treating them like pets, that sort of thing." Nevertheless, he said , since my pneumonia was clearly atypical, and since I kept birds which were known to be able to transmit influenza to humans, "for example, through their faeces" he was going to treat me accordingly by putting me on a drip of the appropriate antibiotics.

Through their faeces? Even in my fevered state I was finally able to understand what must have happened and I told the specialist about our organic pigeon dropping compost. "NOT a very bright move," he said. So will I be alright ? I asked him. His face brightened. "Oh yes, if you agree to stay here in hospital, and we pump you full of the right stuff, you've got a better than 70 per cent chance." I did as I was told.

Following that experience, I suppose I should take very seriously the threats of a global pandemic caused by the spread to humans of the H5N1 avian flu virus - which, by the way, was first discovered as long ago as 1959, in Scotland. But I find it impossible, instead, not to worry more about the consequences of our being stampeded into yet another health scare.

There was the Sars virus, said to emanate from the mysterious Far East, the fear of which caused a global economic slowdown and the bankruptcy of a number of airlines, almost, but not quite, including British Airways. And that was the result of just 60 deaths.

In this country there was Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, aka Mad Cow Disease, which, despite the most-bloodcurdling threats of mass outbreaks of its human form - new variant CJD - led to little more than 100 deaths in the population as a whole.

Horrible, utterly horrible, for the affected families, of course; but statistically speaking a hundred cases amounts to a probability of infection roughly equivalent to the likelihood of winning the national lottery. Above all there was that most illusory infection of all, the Millennium Bug.

In 1999, billions of pounds were spent on prophylactic treatment for an imaginary condition. In the Western world only the Italian government took the decision not to listen to the dire warnings from self-interested software companies (almost all of them American). And, as we now, know, not a single Italian-owned computer went down coughing and spluttering with the Millennium Bug.

In the case of the great bird flu scare of 2005/06 it is other self-interested bodies, by no means all of them drug companies, which are exaggerating the threat. The World Health Organisation - fresh from its triumph in fooling the politicians of the West into thinking that we can all get lung cancer from "passive smoking" - has, of course, led the way.

Margaret Chan of the WHO told Newsweek last October: "This is the first time we've been able to see a pandemic unfold before our very eyes." Yet there is no pandemic. Ms Chan is seeing things. Meanwhile, on its website entitled "10 things you need to know about pandemic influenza", the WHO says of the H5NI virus that at the moment "it does not spread readily among humans".

Does not spread readily? There is not a single recorded proven example of it spreading between humans. Not one.

What has happened is that about 100 humans, some of them in the same family, have caught the disease in its unmutated form (the only form in which it exists), from a close association with infected poultry.

When one considers the insanitary conditions that exist in vast tracts of South-east Asia, and the proximity to their poultry with which many hundreds of millions of people in that part of the world live, it suggests that the H5N1 virus might in fact be peculiarly ill-suited to mutation into a form that can be transmitted between humans.

While it is certainly true that the great influenza pandemic of the winter of 1918 was indeed the result of a form of bird flu that mutated into a version that transmitted readily between humans, the interesting thing is that the original avian form of that infection was not especially dangerous to birds.

In other words, the mutated form of a virus can be very different in its effects to the original form - and there is no doubt that the H5N1 flu is very dangerous indeed to birds.

A fascinating insight into this was provided by The New York Times which last November conducted an interview with Dr Peter Palese of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York State. Dr Palese said that studies of serum collected in 1992 from people in rural China indicated that millions of people there had developed antibodies to the H5N1 strain.

That meant, said Dr Palese, "that they had been infected and recovered without apparent incident. Despite that and despite the fact that the virus has been circulating in China for more than a dozen years, there seems to be no human-to-human spread. I don't think that it has the capability of doing it."

Of course those who are employed to draw up contingency plans for a human pandemic are not time-wasters. There is always a remote chance that any virus can cross the species barrier. And it is certainly true that the way in which most birds we eat are kept - in grotesquely overcrowded conditions - is guaranteed to facilitate any mutation to which H5N1 might be subject.

Above all it is obviously true that the inextricably interconnected and globalised nature of the modern world, in air travel especially, means that a lethal pandemic will have much more serious economic consequences than any the world has previously experienced. Nevertheless, I have no plans to slaughter our chickens just yet.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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