Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Free advice, freely given

Yesterday we posted the ill-considered words of Sir David King, the UK's chief scientist in the Department of Trade and Transport, to the effect we don't have to worry about a bird flu pandemic. It's not going to happen, he says. Sir David is a distinguished scientist but not a biologist or a medical professional. He is a physical chemist. In his official position he has taken forthright stands on the dangers of climate change, which he considers to be a graver threat than terrorism. On these things I agree with him (his increasing support for nuclear power, aside).

On his judgment about bird flu, however, he is badly informed. I'm not the only one to think so. It turns out there is a bitter dispute within the British government, with the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson of the Department of Health taking a far different view. Some of the back and forth between "dont worry, be happy" and leaks about estimates that "bird flu might kill 100,000 children" seems to be the outward manifestation of this internecine warfare.

Meanwhile the H5N1 that infected the Scottish swan was said to be similar to the strain that has infected more than 100 birds in Germany. A surveillance zone has been established around the area where the bird was found as well as a wild bird risk area of 965 square miles. Many poultry farms are in that area with over 3 million birds, about 10% of which are free range, meaning they are outdoors.

The infected swan is being labeled an "isolated case."Maybe. But highly improbable. And if I were a resident of the UK I would much rather authorities erred on the side of caution than on the side of optimism.

Free advice from a non-resident. I'm sure Sir David thinks it's worth exactly what I'm charging for it.