Bird Flu—Schmird Flu


We have been inundated in recent years with warnings against "emerging infections" that will carry off vast numbers of people. Some seem to take delight in the prospect and some even claim that we must stop global warming because malaria infections will increase. Of course, the worry du jour is pandemic bird flu. The feds have just released their plan to combat the disease should it strike, warning that it could kill 2 million Americans.

There is potentially very good news on the bird flu front–Vical, a California pharmaceutical company, may have come up with a universal flu vaccine. No more annual flu shots to keep ahead of the nasty newly mutated varieties of the virus that in a normal year kills about 30,000 Americans, and no more worries about a bird flu pandemic.

Oh, all right, the foregoing is a tad optimistic, but Vical's research points in the direction that treating infectious disease outbreaks is going to take in this century. Emerging infections will be stopped by ever more sophisticated diagnostics combined with rapidly produced vaccines or antibiotics and antivirals that will defeat infections before they can become epidemic. Of course, we are still vulnerable now, but by mid-century epidemics will be historical curiosities. Thus will human ingenuity knock the third of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Pestilence) from his saddle.