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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 05-Jul-06


Wednesday 05-Jul-06

Avian flu

The threat of Avian Flu is currently hanging like a pall over the world. It is also a very real threat. Three influenza pandemics have broken out over the last century, each killing millions. In these, the mortality rate was under 2%. The current H5N1 virus has a mortality rate of 50%, attacking the healthy as powerfully as the sick, young and old. Couple this with modern air travel and a contagion period of up to two weeks and, well, you can do the sums.

Mathematical models of an outbreak predict about three waves, each of about three to six months. We will eventually defeat it, but inoculations take about eight months to develop and cannot be started until we have the target virus -- which of course does not mutated into a human-contagious form until the outbreak of the pandemic.

One of the most insidious aspects of such an outbreak that is different from other catastrophes is people's reactions to one another. In recent terrorist bombings, people rushed to help one another. But when the next person might be contagious we go in fear of one another and may try to isolate ourselves. Other factors add to the chaos, such as hopelessly insufficient hospitals and medical services. Entire organizations, including hospitals and law enforcement agencies may be struck down with the disease, crippling entire cities and leaving them open to wanton crime. Leaders are not immune either, and organizations may be left headless, with their dwindling population in disarray.

Yet in amongst this terror, heroes and natural leaders will emerge, bringing hope and order to desperate masses. People unrealized will step up to the plate and hold firm. And the pandemic will pass and we will go on.

As a coda, if you want a deep story about people and pestilence, then you might try Albert Camus' 'The Plague' (or, for French speakers, 'La Peste'). I read it many years ago and was very moved.

Two useful resources if you want to find out more about Avian Flu are at and

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