Avian Flu: A Media Pandemic

     OBriens prediction was a long way off. Total human deaths from avian flu worldwide so far are slightly less than are killed on a typical day in traffic accidents in the United States. That total was 38,253 for the year in 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Out of the world population of 6.5 billion, 193 people have caught the virus .000003 percent of the population.

     And the experts say were a long way from a human pandemic. As Business & Media Institute Adviser Dr. Elizabeth Whelan wrote in a new commentary, Right now, bird flu can kill humans under rare circumstances, such as when people are in close, frequent contact with raw duck blood, or other conditions highly unusual in developed countries and unusual even in undeveloped ones that increase the odds of transmission from birds to humans.

     The United Nations avian flu coordinator, Dr. David Nabarro, said on CNN Live Feb. 20, 2006, that it certainly isnt something about which people should be alarmed about right now in terms of human health.

     Despite those facts, many journalists are downplaying two very important ifs: if the virus mutates and if it gets passed among humans.

     Correspondent Mary Snow followed Dr. Nabarros assurances with a report that did its best to scare viewers by focusing on the risk of live bird markets in places like New York. Snows story was based on several hypotheticals. After saying experts agree it may be a matter of time for the virus to reach the United States, she continued with her theoretical risk. It would most likely make its way via wild birds migrating from other continents. If that happens, they could infect domestic bird populations, and some of those birds could make their way into live bird markets.

     Snow proceeded to describe the potential dangers of the deadly strain of bird flu. She used the term deadly five times in her two-minute report. In case that wasnt enough for viewers, the graphic on the screen also announced: Deadly bird flu first detected in Southeast Asia in 2003.

The Evolution of Pandemics
     If the hype sounds familiar, it might be because of the worldwide scare from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) just a few years ago, which infected about 8,000 people, mostly in China and Hong Kong. About 800 people died. That was a far cry from earlier flu outbreaks. The Asian flu killed about 70,000 people in the United States in 1957-58 and the Hong Kong flu killed roughly 34,000 here in 1968-69. The last number is roughly the number of people who die each year from flu in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

     Why the difference from decade to decade? Health care has improved immensely in the United States, especially with antibiotics. A major reason why so many died from the Spanish flu was that it weakened their immune systems and they died of secondary complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Antibiotics now help keep those other causes in check.

     NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams stuck with the deadly theme introducing a February 16 story. Reporter Jim Maceda made the point that the influenza strain can kill humans and underlined that by again calling it deadly, but he at least found an expert who brought perspective to the story. Veterinarian Dr. Frieda Scott-Parker explained: This is still a disease of birds, and to my mind, thats where weve got to keep it.

     But birds provided enough worry for ABCs David Wright, who said on the February 21 Good Morning America that the famed ravens of the Tower of London have been moved indoors as a precaution. He then added ominously, For centuries, British legend has had it, if these birds ever disappear, the kingdom will fall.

     Wright went on to misstate the current threat to people. For now bird flu is relatively rare in humans and relatively difficult to catch. Wrights definition of relatively rare? Out of the world population of 6.5 billion, 193 people have caught the virus .000003 percent of the population.

     Not all of the reports were that over-the-top. Harry Smith, co-host of CBSs The Early Show portrayed the bird flu as potentially dangerous as he interviewed Dr. Emily Senay.

Still Safe to Eat Poultry
     Experts are urging people not to panic, and that should extend to Americans eating habits, too. After advising caution for those people who live in countries where bird flu is currently a problem (not the U.S.), Nabarro added in his CNN appearance that people who are nowhere near these problems should continue to handle their poultry as normal and also should continue eating poultry.

     For the time being, U.S. poultry sales appear steady, but exports have dropped significantly. The Wall Street Journal reported on March 2 that poultry companies such as Pilgrims Pride Corp. (NYSE: PPC) have been revising their earnings forecasts downward.

     Media hype only adds to consumers confusion, as CNN correspondent Ram Ramgopal pointed out on the February 21 Your World Today. He warned that Indian poultry prices have fallen as ultra-cautious consumers turn vegetarian. Government officials say news coverage is fueling a panicky reaction that hurts the industry, Ramgopal explained. He interviewed Indian Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who elaborated: To create disproportionate hype about the issue when the media is wrong, it is affecting the rural economy.

     Later in that same program, reporter Paula Newton showed the fear was growing worldwide. Consumers here are going with their gut instinct, and that means chicken is off the menu. She explained that the National Farmers Association was warning the industry could be wiped out if the scare continued.

     The National Chicken Council has stressed that properly cooked poultry is not dangerous to eat. Its statement on avian flu also highlights the differences between U.S. poultry industry and the countries where avian flu has appeared:

Conditions in the United States poultry industry are also radically different from those in Asia, where millions of chickens, ducks, and other poultry live in close conjunction with swine and other livestock and with human beings. Chickens are often allowed to roam at large in the villages that dot the countryside. Live birds are sold by the millions in markets in big cities, where they can infect each other and possibly infect human beings.

By contrast, the vast majority of chickens and turkeys in the United States are raised in sheltered conditions where they have no contact with other animals and very little contact with humans. Few human beings in the United States ever encounter a live chicken or turkey. Therefore the opportunities for transmission of any virus from poultry to humans are limited.

For more information:
U.S. Poultry and Egg Association: Avian Influenza Information
CDC on Avian Flu