The sky is falling

It seems ironic somehow that it would be the chickens. Of all the natural and unnatural disasters predicted to wipe out the human race, one can only marvel at the fact that poultry would do us in. Not a comet, not Ebola, not the Cold War, but chickens. Brace yourself because the avian flu is here and it’s going to kill you and everyone you love. That is, if you believe everything you read.


How did all this start? Scientists predict 1.9 million U.S. citizens could die from avian flu and up to 100 million worldwide.


According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Roche, the Swiss drug manufacturer who owns the patent to Tamiflu, the only medication that reportedly “might work,” won’t share the patent. In other words, the vaguely helpful drug will remain pricey and rare.


According to NPR and University of Minnesota professor Michael Osterholm there’s no real vaccine for the flu, and there won’t be one until months after the pandemic starts.


In a New York Times article President Bush declared that he’ll use the military to enforce quarantines. The avian flu is unstoppable, just look at how many deaths it’s been responsible for so far: 60, no wait 65, no wait 45. It depends on whom you ask.


Fox News seems pretty worried; so does USA Today. Mark Bajorek, medical director of Student Health and Counseling at PSU, not as much. According to the Vanguard [“Portland State offers flu shots at vaccine clinic,” Oct. 12], Bajorek is “going to mobilize” but compares the recent frenzy to the Y2K scare. Remember Y2K? When the world’s economic systems, via their computers, were going to collapse? I do. Co-workers convinced me roving mobs would break down my door, beat me, rape my girlfriend, rob us blind and leave us for dead. I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 secured in my apartment nervously peering through cracked blinds watching nothing happen.


As a child I would lie awake nights waiting for the dormant volcano behind our house to explode, for the Commies to parachute into the schoolyard and for AIDS to render my immune system worthless. Remember the comet? I don’t. I was under the bed praying. There was no time to worry about aliens, monsters or those redneck kids down the street. I had the nightly news.

How long ago did we begin hearing about the avian flu? According to Reuters it was Dec. 15, 2003. Was the virus any less lethal then? How about in January of 2004, when less than a month later it had spread through Taiwan and killed 3 people? Or two weeks later when a six-year old boy in Thailand died? It’s been almost two years since this pandemic was born, so why are we worried now?


According to USA Today – yes, I read it and I was worried – the big scare began when President Bush during his August vacation finished reading John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History” about the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 150,000 people in the U.S. This led to top-secret meetings with senators at the Capitol and Secretary of Health and Human Sciences Mike Leavitt, who became frightened after visiting Katrina-racked New Orleans. In fact, Leavitt was so scared he wrote a draft of a report that claimed 1.9 million people in the U.S. would surely perish. The report was leaked to the New York Times, which scared everyone. And thus, avian madness in the U.S. was born.


You know what’s funny? Leavitt hadn’t even visited Southeast Asia when he penned the inflammatory report. In fact he just left last Saturday on a fact-finding trip. Does that mean when he predicted that 1.9 million people in the United States would die he had no facts? Or only some facts? Or was it just speculation? Are we all afraid for no reason?


No. Of course there’s reason to worry. Avian flu spreads fast, and it kills fast. It’s already making its way into Europe. But are we all going to die from it? Probably not.


It makes sense to worry, to be aware. It made sense two years ago. I am not however entirely convinced that just because President Bush finally read a whole book that we should be preparing for the worst. What would have happened if he had rented “Red Dawn”? Would we be invading Cuba?


Perhaps this is really just another media distraction from the government’s failure in Louisiana and the hopeless war in Iraq. I leave that to you. I’ll be at the mall, buying a respirator for my daughter and eating Chick-fil-As.