For much of 2005 and 2006, headlines about bird flu were sensational (“Virus 911”), fearmongering (“Bird Flu: We’re All Going to Die”), and plentiful, running in major papers daily. The H5N1 strain that swept through Asia showed a limited—but alarming—ability to cross over to humans, with a high fatality rate among those infected. Labs raced to study the virus, researchers coordinated their efforts, and a national pandemic strategy was announced in the United States. Bird flu has since drifted off the media radar. Are we in the clear?
Nope. The United Nations, the World Bank, and thousands of researchers remain worried. According to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, “We are going to have another pandemic. It will occur. It’s something we can’t emphasize enough.” The fear is echoed by a U.N. and World Bank report on bird flu preparedness, released in December 2007, which states that current risks are as high as in mid-2005.
Researchers have made headway in understanding the H5N1 virus; they have created new vaccines and are looking into other possible treatments, such as using antibodies from survivors. But in the United States, some worry that if a wave of flu hits, there won’t be enough tubing, blood bags, and needles for basic supportive care. The good news is that with only 340 cases of avian flu and 209 deaths reported worldwide since 2003 (as of press time), there is still time to prepare.