Newspapers like a good scare story – and, at the time of writing, headlines of a potential global pandemic derived from bird flu have become regular features.
Unfortunately this time they are not exaggerating – because the real threat goes beyond bird flu.
The US Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt has said, “The threat is both real and formidable.” The World Health Organisation has complained that failure of scientists from different countries to share research data on the flu virus is putting millions of lives at risk.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer’s website currently states, "Wherever in the world a flu pandemic starts, perhaps with its epicentre in the Far East, we must assume we will be unable to prevent it reaching the UK. When it does, its impact will be severe in the number of illnesses and the disruption to everyday life.” Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer
Even the normally conservative Times newspaper is on record as saying that, “Public health officials in Britain are working on a new contingency plan. The fears are that when – rather than if – a pandemic emerges, hospitals will be overwhelmed, businesses will falter, public transport will be halted and facilities for burying the dead will prove inadequate.”
Asian avian flu – or strain H5N1 – has crossed over from birds to humans in only a few cases so far, in the Far East. But if the strain mutates human to human, transmission will become easier, the global pandemic will start, and the warnings will become reality.
Asian bird flu is a serious threat. But so are a host of bacterial infections that used to be, until recently, managed with antibiotics.
Increasingly hospital super-bugs like MRSA and community infections such as multi-drug resistant TB, are becoming genuine threats. For the last half century we have relied on antibiotics to protect ourselves (from bacterial infections) – but that defence is starting to fall apart.