One of the nice things about weekend blogging is that I'm not quite as captive to the news cycle as during the week. So on a Saturday morning during flu season, let me put on my tinfoil hat and digress into one of my pet fascinations: the spread of the H5N1 influenza virus.
About this time last year, I read John Barry's The Great Influenza, about the 1918 pandemic. (A good read, though not in the same league as his seminal work on the Great Flood of 1927, Rising Tide. If you want to really understand Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, start with Rising Tide.) Beyond the sheer number of deaths from what was dubbed the Spanish Flu is the speed with which the virus spread and the ferocity with which it attacked its victims. It simply overwhelmed the ability of political, social, and medical institutions (such as they were at the time) to respond in any meaningful or effective way. Advances in medical science would help mitigate the effects of a flu pandemic today in developed countries, although probably not to the extent we would like to think. It would make Katrina look like a gentle spring rain.
There have been other flu pandemics since 1918, though none so lethal, and the experts assure us that another pandemic is just a matter of time. It is the high mortality rate among human victims of the H5N1 virus that has public health experts particularly worried, combined with the fact, not surprising, that the virus has taken hold in bird populations in underdeveloped countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam where birds and humans live in close proximity and where monitoring and treatment is hampered by a lack of resources, among other things.
Still, and this is why I started out with the tinfoil hat reference, the total number of H5N1 human deaths worldwide since the virus first emerged is dwarfed by the annual number of deaths in the U.S. from regular old strains of influenza. So H5N1 may or may not be the next pandemic flu. There are good reasons to worry (more people died of H5N1 in 2006 than the previous three years combined), and good reasons not to panic (a swine flu showed signs of going pandemic in the 1970s but never did).
In the meantime, there's no better place from where to keep a watchful eye on the spread of H5N1 than the H5N1 blog.