Thursday, March 31, 2005

You bet your life

The epidemic of bird flu among poultry in North Korea is taking on a decidedly desperate cast. UN Food and Agriculture experts are flying there from Bangkok, China and Australia (Reuters).

The context is grim. A great deal of money, effort and hope was invested in poultry production by the North Korean government. Struggling to feed its undernourished population of 23 million, a special state agency was established for breeding chickens and ducks in December of 2001 (UPI via World Peace Herald). While poultry was one of the few growing sectors of the economy, the country produced only about 25 million birds in 2004, just over one per person/year, far short of Kim Jong Il's promised one kilogram of chicken meat and 60 eggs a month for every household in Pyongyang. The number of chickens estimated in North Korea is about 19 million. Now mass culling is reducing this already inadequate source of protein.

Pyongyang's public admission of the previously denied bird flu outbreak is seen by many as a sure sign the problem has spiraled out of control and foreign help is needed. The epidemic has probably already hit the poor rural area and is spreading. North Korea has mobilized its military to cull and disinfect poultry farms around Pyongyang, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry:
"Thousands of soldiers from the Pyongyang Defense Command and 3d Army Corps are involved in the slaughter and burial of diseased fowl," a Unification Ministry official told the Joong Ang Ilbo.

[ . . . ]

According to the Unification Ministry, the North's mobilization of the military is evidence of the seriousness of the situation. North Korean troops, after finishing winter drills this month, were scheduled to assist farmers during spring planting, the ministry said. The North shifted the assignment of the soldiers to cope with the spread of bird flu, officials said.
So while the Bush Administration and our European allies were dithering over North Korea's nuclear shenanigans, another kind of bomb was ticking in the Korean peninsula, where the current Asian bird flu outbreak began in 2003 in the South and spread to Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Indonesia.

Reuters reports that the FAO experts are hoping to contain the virus before it mutates to a form easily transmissible between humans. This view is incomprehensible. The virus is already solidly entrenched in poultry in Asia, animals in close proximity to human beings. By common consent the virus cannot be eradicated at this point. If there is no intrinsic biological barrier to its making the feared genetic change, it will happen and containing the poultry epidemic (a worthwhile enterprise on its own) will not prevent it.

It is time to stop talking this way and plan seriously for a pandemic in the near future. With good luck it won't happen, although no one at the moment can give a convincing argument why it shouldn't and there are plenty of plausible arguments why it should. If I were a betting person, I wouldn't bet my money against a pandemic. Why should I bet my life on it?