The problem reporters and editors have with H5N1 is that they simply don't have a functional template for reporting on a true global pandemic.
But H5N1 is just "bird flu." Influenza. Hell, we've all had the flu. What's the big deal?
The result is tepid coverage that, in the past week, has focused primarily on downplaying the risk ... and casting the mainstream press in the paternal role of sober, unflappable truth-teller. Today's example: A web-exclusive Newsweek article by Rob Nordland ("The Sky's Not Falling... Yet").
Nordland's piece suffers from the media's standard-issue lack of comprehension in that it never explains why avian flu is a big concern in the first place: a highly lethal virus subtype for which no living human being has any residual immunity. The article shows no understanding of recombination, the public health implications of a disease that kills by cytokene storm, or even the economic ramifications for farmers in the EU.
The clear message: Anyone who is alarmed by bird flu is a silly little Euro fool (although we're not saying for sure that bad things might not happen, someday, because that would be irresponsible of us).
Newsweek's web piece is the media equivalent of a cop at the scene of a bloody accident telling bystanders to keep on moving: "Show's over. Nothing to see here."
The alarm was natural, but also, at this point, unjustified. Most birds died from something other than avian flu, let alone the H5N1 subtype. "There's a lot of dead birds out there," says Maria Cheng, spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva. "There always are." Now they’re noticed. And bird flu, even H5N1, "is largely a bird disease at the moment," she says. Markos Kyprianou, the European Union's Health Commissioner, called for calm at the close of an emergency meeting of European officials in Luxembourg. "The fact we have avian flu in Europe now does not affect its transmissibility to humans," he said.
And that's just the part where it's misleading and dismissive. The story is also factually wrong.
Presently humans can catch bird flu only directly from infected birds, and in 117 such cases, 60 of the human victims died—a stunningly high mortality rate for influenza. But all of those cases were in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, where many millions of birds have H5N1 infections, and many millions of others have been culled to contain it. Europe's outbreaks are a long way from that, and so far officials have been reacting quickly to contain them—not always the case in early days of the epidemic in Asia.
In fact, health officials suspect there have been multiple cases of human-to-human transmission, a development that caused some observers this summer to move H5N1 up to Level 5 on the six-step pandemic scale. While narrowly correct, that dire assessment also missed the same point that Nordland misses, though in the opposite direction. In its current form, H5N1 is barely transmissible from human to human. But here's the thing about viruses: they never stay in their current form for long.
The meaningful concern is that H5N1 will pick up a mutation that will make it transmissible in the same way that garden-variety influenzas are transmissible: I sneeze, and everyone within five feet gets a potential infectious dose. That transmissibility mutation is the skeleton key to the gates of pandemic Hell.
By downplaying fears of this event, Nordland and others miss the significance of the Euro bird deaths. The danger is not that millions of Greeks and Turks and Romanians are going to start slathering themselves in birdshit and get sick: The danger is that the wider the global swath of H5N1 this fall, the more likely it becomes that some chicken farmer (or, even more likely, his pig) will play host to a dose of H5N1 and a separate dose of generic influenza. Simultaneously.
When that happens, the odds increase that the H5N1 virus will swap genetic information with its more highly adapted cousin -- a process called recombination -- and produce the mutation that The H5N1 Worrywarts Club (card-carrying member) keeps nattering about. Flu season is upon us, and as the Avian Flu spreads, the chance that this disastrous viral meeting will take place rises.
Is panic a good thing? Never. But are media pacifiers and mild-mannered government officials really combating panic? Put it this way: I haven't seen any film of Europeans rioting, breaking into pharmacies, etc. They're not panicking. They're concerned.
They should be. We should be. Because if we start making contingency plans now, we can weather this thing in relatively good shape.
Why is that idea so foreign -- or so threatening -- to so many people?