Saturday, April 08, 2006

Hysteria hysteria

The UK has H5N1 in a wild bird in Scotland and hysterical articles in the press immediately started warning everyone it's not time to panic. Of course, it's never time to panic. And either Britons are especially obedient to the press, or the panic over panic was an overreaction. Most people are pretty rational about things like this.
“Any wild birds found dead anywhere, be they geese or swans, ducks or seagulls, are being tested at the moment,” said a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London. “It’s absolutely routine.” Tests carried out on nine birds in Scotland and six in Northern Ireland had proved negative, official sources said yesterday.

It had earlier been announced that 14 birds, 12 of them swans, were being tested but a spokesman for the Scottish executive could not say whether that was still the correct figure.

The H5N1 strain is blamed for the deaths of more than 100 people around the world, mostly in Asia, but the main fear in Britain is that it will spread to poultry farms.

Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific advisor, said Britain was “probably better prepared” than any other nation because of its experience with foot-and-mouth disease in livestock five years ago.
“I don’t think that one dead swan is a crisis,” he told BBC radio.

Britain’s largest supermarket chain Tesco reported a “marginal” drop in sales of fresh chickens since the swan was confirmed to have been infected with H5N1 on Thursday, and no change to egg sales. Rival retailers Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose all reported no changes at all. (AFP)
Even if there had been a drop in egg and poultry sales, that doesn't constitute panic, only a natural reaction of a confused public -- bombarded with contradictory messages -- pausing to take stock. Authorities will probably have to cope with many calls about dead birds. This is normal and desirable. If they are interested in knowing if the disease is spreading amongst birds and people are told they only way they can get the disease is from birds, they should want to get these calls. That may be anxiety, but it is appropriate and useful anxiety, not panic.

We have been severely critical of flu deniers here, since we believe the threat of a pandemic must be taken with the kind of seriousness that requires a public commitment and such a commitment is not helped by those who soft-pedal the potential for a pandemic, putting it all down to hysteria, hype and fear mongering. But we also recognize it is impossible to eliminate different voices and opinions.

So if the public hesitates before buying chicken and calls authorities about dead birds while it sorts out what makes sense and what doesn't, that's just the way it will have to be. No panic, no hysteria but an appropriate reaction. And pretty much as it will be, with or without the fear-of-fear mongers.