Calling Out the Bird Flu


Would you vaccinate yourself against a disease that may never appear? Responsible safety precaution, or capitulation to rampant paranoia? Who's to know?

Last week, I joked about being bumped from the news by another story about a possible bird flu epidemic that may or may not ever arrive.

Then I received an email from a reader who pointed me back to something I wrote back in Jan 04 about Uranus's movement into Pisces. In that piece, I described a few social trends I foresaw over the coming Uranus-in-Pisces years, one of which was: 'More hysteria over disease'. (The SARS frenzy was running rampant at that time.) The email asked whether I thought all this bird flu talk falls under this 'hysteria' heading.

Well, any answer to this question raises the dicey notion of prediction, a hot-button topic of mine considering I don't believe anyone can definitively predict the future. It hasn't yet been set in stone, and we all possess the free will to sculpt how it will turn out. It would be foolish—and potentially disrespectful—if I were to discount the entire bird flu hullabaloo as nothing more than mere fear tactics… and then, in hindsight, be forced to face a reality of millions of deaths worldwide caused by a threat I refused to take seriously. After all, experts agree that the risk of such a pandemic outbreak is truly serious.

However—and this is a big 'however'—I can't help but cast a skeptic's glance when the spectacular-sounding possibility of 'millions of deaths worldwide' (a seductive headline sure to attract ratings and readership) is rooted in a virus that currently infects less than 200 people, and has killed only about 60. More people perish in nasty bus crashes.

As consumers of media news, we could easily mistake the limited scope of the bird flu's real-life current-day wrath, based on the doomsdayish tone of the reports… and find ourselves awash in paralyzing panic, erroneously expecting our children to come home from school infected any day now, cough at the dinner table, and exterminate the entire family in one fail airborne swoop… when, in fact, that's highly unlikely. (Unless, of course, our children attend school on a Vietnamese poultry farm and play during recess on surfaces contaminated by bird feces.) The news would have us believe that virally-blighted birds are pecking at our back doors, squawking to get in to our suburban ranch homes so they can shit all over us until we die.

Sure, while only those rural inhabitants of Southeast Asia who've come in close contact with infected poultry have thus far contracted the H5N1 virus linked to bird flu, it could get much worse. Though the virus doesn't spread particularly easily from birds to humans, we know it could quickly spread between humans in uncontrollable proportions. In order for it to reach the 'millions of deaths worldwide' threshold, the H5N1 avian virus would need to become present in a human subject… then swap genetic material with another, more easily humanly communicable influenza virus… and then, once this new infectious hybrid strain had created itself, it could disperse globally over our technologically-swift transportation channels (planes, trains and automobiles) and devastate the human population in the form of a pandemic. It's actually quite a likely scenario… but only one among many.

Are we willing to surrender our livelihoods to a biological possibility? Even if fear is your game, then aren't there enough existent threats to your well-being—car crashes, food additives, cell-phone radiation, carcinogens swarming our so-called 'civilized' environment—to keep you busy, without worrying about something that hasn't yet manifested in any significant way?

Shouldn't we redirect our attention to the real looming threats to humanity: hunger, thirst, poverty, lack of basic health care, climate change? These already cause millions of deaths worldwide. But as headlines, they lack a certain glamour. They are 'downers'. They don't make consumers want to buy products from top-dollar advertisers.

Here's mainly what makes me suspicious that bird flu may be an example of 'more hysteria over disease', rather than a substantive news story with genuine worth for our everyday lives:

(1) There's a lot of conjecture, but few useful facts upon which we, the news viewers/readers, can act. There's nothing we can do… short of staying out of Thai chicken coops.

(2) No vaccine currently exists to treat the H5N1 virus—in fact, none can be effectively created until a pandemic breaks out, to ensure it will closely match the actual viral strain—though talk of society-wide vaccination is already widespread. If a bird flu epidemic does emerge, the vaccine will be so new, it won't have undergone rigorous testing. But despite potential health hazards, vaccination will doubtless proceed anyway… because there's a lot of drug-company money to be made. (See another Uranus-in-Pisces social trend: 'War against drugs, or war for pharmaceuticals?')

(3) When President Bush references the possible need to enforce a quarantine on bird-flu victims as an example of why federal law should be changed to grant him the power to use the military for domestic law-enforcement purposes, everybody should be suspicious.

Uranus is the harbinger of disruptions to the status quo, and its movement through the zodiac signifies what themes or issues will pop into consciousness and surprise us with their pressure to radically reinvent the social fabric. And Pisces is the sign without boundaries, representing that which can't be verifiably seen or heard, rationally understood or physically contained.

While Uranus travels through Pisces, we must be aware of the potential for invisible, boundary-crossing entities (such as outbreaks of illness) to invade and infect our collective spirit, whether with love or disease… and we must also remember the fine line between 'invisible' and 'illusory'. We're left to ask ourselves, 'Is it real, or is it fear?'—and to believe what we're going to believe.

While I have no conclusive answer on the bird flu, I direct you to the sources I scoured looking for one. Maybe you'll have better luck finding the real threat to our safety and the actual measures we should be taking to protect ourselves.

Key Facts about Avian Influenza (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Avian Influenza FAQs (World Health Organization)
The Fear Contagion (Washington Post)
Bird Flu Blues (AlterNet)
Avian Flu Blog