I am totally disappointed in the bird flu. And I'm not the only one. The fear-based 24 hour news networks, not to mention the Bush administration, are enraged they have nothing to scare us with at the moment. No credible terrorist threats, no escaped inmates, no missing cheerleaders in Aruba. So they have great hopes for the H5N1 virus... what better way to create Must-See-CNN, or a helpless, childlike devotion to our Big Brother Government?
But Dr. Sanjay Gupta is looking worried these days. His bleached smile just isn't as wide. Why? The damn thing isn't mutating. Sure, it's killed about 70 people... but for a virus that's been around for 9 years, that ain't saying much. By way of comparison, more people were killed by police stun guns during that time, more people died at the hands of Australia's Dr. Patel (aka Dr. Death!), and, of course, more Americans die in a typical month in Iraq.
Obviously, the threat (code Orange, anyone?) is in the possibility of a sudden pandemic, which we're repeatedly told we're "overdue" for. The problem is, we're not. Deadly pandemics seem to obey the same rules as roulette-- your number doesn't have to come up once every "cycle." And the government's no better at predicting them than they are at tsunamis or earthquakes. They're better at forecasting hurricanes... even if they lose a major city every now and then.
In May, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the virus that causes bird flu "could become one of the most terrible threats to life that this world has ever faced." That was 8 years after the virus was detected, but apparently May, 2005 is when Mike got the memo. Since that time, billions of dollars for pharmaceuticals and vaccines have been pledged by international governments, always deferring to the Americans-- the "CDC's projections."
Funny thing about projections-- they're notoriously wrong. In 1997, the same year the bird flu virus was discovered, a leading UK research group projected that vCJD, the human form of mad cow disease, would kill up to 10 million people. In 2002 they revised that downwards to 50,000. More recently, ummmm..... 80. And that's over the next 75 years. Probably didn't catch that story on Rita Cosby.
None of this is to minimize the 70 or so people who have died from this awful virus. But as Beverly Hills housewives are hording Tamiflu, it might be helpful to keep in mind those 70 people were living in developing countries, where poultry and pigs are literally raised in the house. Epidemics are not uncommon in birds or other animals that are crowded together. It seems to be nature's way of leveling off the population. Kind of like global warming is ours.
Of course, none of that is what TV networks want us to hear. They need us locked in the anxiety spiral, eager to consume whatever soothing product is advertised during the commercial break--perhaps an antidepressant or sleeping aide, brought to you by the company making the non-existent vaccine for the bird flu. Follow the money, wasn't that the phrase?
As Wolf Blitzer anxiously stands before his 10 (live!) plasma screens in "The Situation Room", like the host of a telethon waiting for someone to invent the disease, you can practically hear the desperation in his voice for this lame-ass virus to do something other than kill turkeys in Turkey. He's acutely aware another Y2K would be bad for business.
Where's SARS, or a baby falling down a well, when you need it? I mean, seriously, how much more screen time can we expect these anchors to spend pretending to be shocked and appalled that a drug addicted screenwriter faked his own memoir and used Oprah to promote it?
For their part, the administration is hard at work suggesting "quarantines", because, let's face it, even a hypothetical theft of civil liberties turns them on. And, in light of recent poll numbers and a guy named Jack Abramoff, nothing short of "the worst threat to life this world has ever faced" will do.
If there's any silver lining to the rabid marketing of the bird flu, it's this: If you really want something to be terrified of, just take a look around. You've already got it.