Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Historic special issue on avian flu in Nature

In an extraordinary special issue, the world's top scientific journal, Nature, again sounds an urgent warning regarding the threat of a pandemic from avian influenza.
Trouble is brewing in the East. A highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza is endemic in southeast Asia. Many millions of chickens have been culled, but there is a persistent reservoir in domesticated ducks and wild birds. The H5N1 virus isn't going to go away. And each time it emerges, people can be infected.


This week, Nature devotes its News Feature and Commentary pages to a detailed consideration of the risks posed by avian flu, and how well we are prepared to deal with it. In the pages that follow, our reporters examine nations' capacity to produce a vaccine against a pandemic strain, and the adequacy of global stockpiles of antiviral drugs. They do not paint an encouraging picture.

Repeated warnings about the international community's failure to respond to the pandemic threat have fallen on deaf ears. So in our opening News Feature, we use the benefit of fictional hindsight to throw the issues into starker relief, describing a future pandemic through the weblog of a journalist in the thick of things. This is fiction, but not fantasy — the storyline was drawn up in consultation with those who could soon be dealing with the situation for real.
The fictional weblog is highly realistic, absolutely convincing and for those reasons very frightening. An extended Commentary section has pieces from noted authorities (Robert Webster, Michael Osterholm, David Ho among others) and those in authority (Tony Fauci). Full texts are free online for most articles, including avian flu articles from other Nature publications journals and past articles (index here). Direct links are also up on Connotea, courtesy Declan Butler, Nature Senior reporter. This is a treasure trove of information I have only had a short time to skim. I will be digesting it over the next several days but thought it important to alert everyone.

Nature is doing nothing less than trying to jump start action on avian flu. That a private publication should find it necessary to take this on is a sad commentary on the dereliction of duty from local, national and international public health authorities.

Kudos to Nature. A groundbreaking and possibly historic publishing event. If it succeeds.