By All Means, Let's Try to Start Another Flu Panic

The World Health Organization needs its own tabloid


Waiting for a comeback
Credit: Lynn Kelley Author / / CC BY-NC-SA

A new strain of bird flu has killed a handful of people in China, and while Western reporting on the situation has been fairly mild so far, The Sydney Morning Herald captured a World Health Organization (WHO) official in China trying to describe the strain in as fearful a way as possible:

On Wednesday Keiji Fukuda, who is leading researchers for the World Health Organisation in China, said they were still trying to understand the virus but it appeared "unusually dangerous".

"This is definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses we have seen," said Dr Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security. "We think this virus is more transmissible to humans than H5N1," he said, referring to the strain which WHO estimates has killed more than 360 people since 2003.

There have been 108 cases and 22 deaths since the beginning of April, which seems like a lot if you don't consider the quarter- to half-a-million deaths worldwide WHO attributes to influenza each year.

Most recall the panic over swine flu back in fall 2009 (random hand sanitizers everywhere may serve as a permanent artifact). The number of confirmed deaths due to swine flu ended up being much less than predicted, less than 20,000 according to WHO and Centers for Disease Control estimates (though experts believe there may have been many, many more deaths in third-world African and Asian countries that weren't counted due to lack of access to health care).

It seems a bit early for researchers to be pulling out superlatives like "most lethal" and "more transmissible," particularly when comparing it with a strain of flu that has killed just a hundred more people over nine years than a collapsing building in Bangladesh did just yesterday.  

In 2009, Jesse Walker analyzed how the swine flu panic fell a bit short in actual citizen panicking.