Leading article: Don't panic. Yet

Share

At the risk of sounding like Corporal Jones in Dad's Army, the response to the news that the bird flu that killed thousands of turkeys in Suffolk was the serious H5N1 strain should be: Don't panic. Bird flu is one of those risks that modern risk-averse societies have some difficulty coming to terms with. Our lust for certainty is not satisfied by the unknown chances of a certain event, namely the next flu pandemic. That there will be a flu pandemic - a global epidemic - is certain. But we do not know when it will be, or how virulent it will be, which are the facts that really matter.

The importance of H5N1, which has been monitored since 1997, is that it is a severe strain of bird flu that has "pandemic potential", according to the World Health Organisation. In other words, it is a bird virus that has the potential to change into a form that is easily transmissible between humans. At the moment, it can infect humans only by direct physical contact. That is why the outbreak in Suffolk poses a low risk to anyone other than turkeys. The affected birds have been destroyed and in any case the virus is killed by cooking.

The world is still waiting, then, for this - or another - strain of bird flu to change into a form that can be transmitted between humans in the way that normal flu is, that is, by coughing or sneezing. The outbreak in Suffolk does not alter the odds of this evolution occurring. When that happens, it will happen in a developing country where people live with their poultry and pigs and the pool of viral material is greatest. The significance of the Suffolk outbreak is twofold. One, it underlines the extent and persistence of the H5N1 strain around the world. Two, it points up the weakness of the official systems for infection surveillance and control.

When the flurry of feathers on the turkey farm dies down, however, the real worry remains the risk that a bird flu virus will somewhere, far from Britain, transform into a human pandemic form. That is the real eventuality for which governments need to plan. Wherever it starts, it will probably spread around the world in less than three months. There were pandemics in 1918, 1957 and 1968, when most international travel was by ship, and the illness encircled the globe in six to nine months. Of those three pandemics, the first was easily the worst, killing up to 50 million people worldwide; the later ones caused two million and one million deaths respectively.

Some scientists argue that, as the H5N1 strain has not transformed into a human-transmissible form in 10 years, it is unlikely now to do so. But one strain will transform eventually, and we have no idea how deadly it will be.

All that governments can do is to stockpile anti-viral medicines that may or may not be effective and to "stockpile" the capacity to produce vaccines when the pandemic virus itself emerges. This Government is doing both, after a hesitant start. The outbreak of bird flu on a turkey farm in Suffolk may not be a danger to human health, but it serves as a useful reminder of a potential danger that still lurks elsewhere in the world.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage pose for a photograph as thousands gather in Dublin Castle  

The lessons we can learn from Ireland's gay marriage referendum

Stefano Hatfield
Immigration enforcement officers lead a Romanian national who has been arrested on immigration offences from a house in Southall in London  

Don’t blame migrants – the West helped to create their plight

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?