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September 14, 2005

Slate on avian flu

Here is today's Slate piece on why you should not be very worried about avian flu.  I found this not to be very convincing.  Here is the main argument:

Yet the science behind all the worry is questionable. It rests on the unproven claim that the avian flu will develop exactly like the strain that caused the flu pandemic of 1918. A March 2004 article in Science showed that the 1918 flu—which infected close to a billion people and killed 50 million or more—made the jump from birds to humans through a slight change in the structure of its hemagglutinins, the molecules by which the virus attaches itself to body cells. This mutation allowed the virus to kill more World War I soldiers than weapons did, effectively ending the war when forces on both sides became too sick to fight.

The current bird flu, however, has a different molecular structure than the 1918 bug. And though it has infected millions of birds, there is no direct evidence that it is about to mutate into a form that would transmit from human to human. In isolated cases, food handlers in Asia have gotten sick, but that doesn't mean that a wildly lethal mutation is about to occur.

There is no direct confrontation with two facts.  First, flu pandemics seem to happen, very roughly, every thirty years or so.  Second, the pools for breeding such a virus -- through either mutation or recombination -- are now more numerous and diverse than ever before.

Posted by dymaxion at September 14, 2005 01:22 PM

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