As of now, so far as we know, on Planet Earth about 60 people out of 6 billion have died of bird flu. All were involved in handling sick birds. There is, as of now, no recorded case of bird flu being transmitted from one human to another — something that is necessary before even an epidemic, much less a pandemic, could occur.
An epidemic is a widespread outbreak of a disease in a particular community at a particular time. A pandemic is an outbreak of disease in a whole country or in several countries. Pandemics occur, on the average, every 30 to 40 years.
What I’m trying to do is add some perspective to the current semihysteria being whipped up by politicians and the media. Certainly the virus that causes bird flu could mutate so that it could be transmitted from human to human. Such mutations, while typical of viruses, ordinarily occur over a period of years, not overnight.
If you are inclined toward hypochondria, reading an article on viruses in a good encyclopedia will give you the creeps. There are zillions of them, but fortunately most of them are harmless. They are not really critters, but parasitic bits of protein that have to attach themselves to living cells. They are so small, they can only be seen by an electron microscope, which was invented in the 1940s. A Russian in 1892 and a Dutchman in 1898 began to suspect that there was some kind of infectious agent that was not a bacterium or a microorganism. Whatever it was, it was small enough to pass through a porcelain filter that stopped bacteria. That fact, by the way, should limit one’s faith in latex as protection against viral infections.
So, before you let politicians, the media, the pharmaceutical companies and the grant hogs at the National Institutes of Health scare you with stories about being wiped out by a bird-flu pandemic, consider the following: If you are more than 50 years old, you’ve already lived through two pandemics of flu and probably didn’t even know it.
At any moment, some new virus might appear that would cause mankind big problems. Earth is a hazardous environment. Humans are all mortal. The only people who have ever gotten off the planet alive are astronauts and cosmonauts.
If the bird-flu virus should mutate so that it can travel human to human, there is no vaccine for it. It would have to be treated with the old methods of trying to isolate those infected with it. The only thing individuals could do to protect themselves would be to avoid crowds, stop picking their noses or using their fingers as toothpicks, and wash their hands several times a day.
At any rate, pandemics — even the bad one in 1918—1919 — run their course and stop on their own, usually in a year or two. Even the 1918 one killed only about 550,000 Americans, and so it is well to keep in mind for perspective purposes that, on average, 2 million of us die every year from one cause or another.
I’m just trying to say keep a stiff upper lip and don’t let the new phenomenon of 24/7 television tie your knickers in a knot. It is the nature of that business to be in a continuing state of fretting about something. It was one of Shakespeare’s characters, I think, who put the matter so well: We all owe God a death, so if we pay today we are quit for tomorrow.
For the sake of your mental health, turn off your TV, then practice good personal hygiene, go about your daily life and enjoy, as the old pioneers used to say, every day you have above ground. Our Earth may be hazardous to our health, but it is one beautiful place to live.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.