Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bird Flu, Swine Flu and Nobody Flew

It's a relief that planes are flying in the UK skies again, unless of course, you live under a flight path. But was it really necessary to institute a six-day blanket ban on airlines, causing massive disruption and financial loss? I imagine there will be an enquiry in due course (post-election, of course). I'm no vulcanologist, nor am I an aviation expert, so I rely on others to make the right decisions regarding air safety. Only yesterday, I was listening to a "Professor of Geoclimatology" (try saying that when you're eating a cream cracker) on BBC Radio 5 Live. He was explaining that any plane flying through the ash cloud would have its windscreen "etched black" and the "engines would fill with molten glass in seconds". He argued that the ban would need to be in place for "weeks at least". Less than 24 hours later, the ban was lifted, with Dame Deirdre Hutton, of the Civil Aviation Authority saying "Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas." In other words, it wasn't as big a problem as people thought.

Now, I'm all in favour of keeping people safe. A few years ago, we heard dire warnings that Avian Flu (or Bird Flu, as the tabloids called it) was about to sweep across the world, killing millions of people. Although millions of birds have become infected with the virus since its discovery, 262 humans have died from the H5N1 virus in twelve countries according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data as of August 31, 2009. Maybe we were lucky, or have been so far.

But hang on a minute. Swine Flu was the next pandemic (a word that we've learned is like an epidemic, only much much worse - at least in theory). Countries around the world stockpiled millions of pounds worth of vaccines, making a tidy sum for pharmaceutical companies in the process. A recent report by the Council of Europe's health committee has criticised the WHO for its reaction to swine flu. Labour MP Paul Flynn, vice chair of the council's health committee, said "In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health initially announced that around 65,000 deaths were to be expected. In the meantime, by the start of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1,000 fatalities. By January 2010, fewer than 5,000 persons had been registered as having caught the disease and about 360 deaths had been noted"

Of course, no-one wants to be caught unawares by disease or natural disaster. But the problem now seems to be that the scare tactics are making people more suspicious of the predictions. The next time a pandemic is predicted, some people will regard it as simply a "scare", and not bother to get vaccinated or take precautions. The next time there's a dire weather warning, people may think "it wasn't that bad last time, and ignore advice to stay indoors or avoid travel.

It's always going to be a tough call, but would it be too much to ask for a realistic assessment of risk, rather than a vision of doom and disaster that turns out to be a damp squib?

(By the way, thanks to Andy Headworth for the inspiration for this headline)

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