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Bird flu: let not fear make us headless chickens

Saturday 25 February 2006, by JENKINS*Simon

Scare is so much the style of government in Britain that its absence is a genuine, and very welcome, surprise.

WHO SAYS nobody gives credit to Ministers where it is due? Let us hear it for Margaret Beckett, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). She is playing avian flu absolutely right. Invited to panic by a coalition of scaremongers, lobbyists, academics, and headline writers, Ms. Beckett and her junior Minister, Ben Bradshaw, are keeping their heads.

No, they are not quarantining something called "the national flock" at the bidding of the tabloids. No, they are not hiring every agri-spiv in the land and paying them millions to cull, jab, immobilise or incarcerate birds. No, they cannot see any argument for poultry vaccination when not a single case of avian flu has occurred in the British Isles and not one chicken has died in Europe.

As Ms. Beckett pointed out in Brussels this week, the arrival of avian flu in Britain is now "increasingly likely," given the isolated cases of sick wildfowl found across Europe. But increasingly likely does not mean certain or even very likely. Were any of these hypotheticals to occur, new steps might be appropriate, but not now.

In other words, these Ministers are doing what their predecessors seemed unable to do, which is make a mature assessment of risk. Of course, there is a chance of flu being discovered in some wayward migrant. There is an outside chance that it might then translate into the mass chicken population. There is a wilder chance that it could mutate and attack humans, and mutate again to become infectious between humans. All this "could" take us back to the 1918 epidemic, if not to bubonic plague and the Black Death. But I do not employ Ministers to scare me witless. I employ them to assess the risk of these things happening and balance that risk against the cost of minimising it within reason.

The press this week depicted the avian menace as if it were a Goring remake of Hitchcock’s The Birds. The ravens of the Tower of London are to be taken indoors lest the monarchy fall. On Monday, the nation gave prayers of thanks when the flight path of a dead French duck was traced as southerly, not westerly.

Vaccine manufacturers’ campaign?

Meanwhile, vaccine manufacturers are terrifying public health officials and virologists are queueing up with quotes for the press. "Are we next?" screeches a London University professor, John Oxford, declaring that bird flu "will be the first pandemic of the 21st century." The U.K. Government, he cries, "must now confront the immediate threat," as if the overflight of a misguided house martin was as menacing as Saddam Hussein’s WMD. The World Health Organisation warns that "one in four Britons could die" from the flu. The editorials pick up the cry and demand something be done, preferably involving mass slaughter and expense.

As far as I can read it, the flu strain known as H5N1 has taken eight years to spread from east Asia to Europe. In that time, it has killed just 91 people who have been in intimate contact with diseased birds. Roughly 200 people are ill at present, with a 60 per cent chance of recovery. As world diseases go, this is trivial, yet it currently consumes more time and column inches than MRSA, malaria or AIDS.

That other countries are running scared is neither here nor there. The French have cornered a market with 600 million face masks. Some European Governments are planning mass vaccination. In Britain, that would require 20 million doses for free-range poultry alone and an army to enforce it. Small wonder the vaccine manufacturers join the call for "the government to act." Yet vaccination is at best a partial remedy, since it needs repeating and does not protect carriers against infecting other birds.

Scare is so much the British style of government that its absence is a genuine surprise. The past decade has been punctuated by wildly overstated threats from salmonella, BSE, foot and mouth, Sars, ricin, smallpox and anthrax. During the great Al-Qaeda scare, Downing Street even ordered thousands of top people to be inoculated against smallpox. Were they, or was it a stunt?

With avian flu the scientists appear, at last, to be behaving themselves. They are in a privileged position in being able to terrify politicians and public alike through the media megaphone, yet they carry no responsibility for the validity of their predictions or the cost of preventing them.

Ministers rely on professional advice because, if they ignore it as exaggerated, they will be hanged, drawn, and quartered when anything goes wrong. A heavy duty therefore rests with scientific advisers not just to say ``there is a risk’’ but to share with the public their assessment of how great it is and what might be reasonable to minimise it. Scientists know that the media are risk-illiterate.

Responsible Ministers should be proof against industry lobbying and media scares. They should declare the risk in a course of action and adjust it to circumstance.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

See online : The Hindu

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