I was sitting at work the other day when some co-workers of mine started a conversation that I wouldn't have expected to hear at my job. I work at a research hospital. Naturally, people I work with are either scientists or pretty damned close. Now I'm not trying to make grandiose statements about the intelligence of people in the scientific community. Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity has concrete examples of the kind of stupidity that results when someone has more free time than common sense.
Either way, the people I work with should know better than to panic about 1) things with questionable factual support and 2) things that humans can do absolutely nothing about. Avian influenza or bird flu is an example of one such thing that meets both of those criteria, and yet two of my fine co-workers were in a frenzy about taking steps to prevent it.
First of all, if you look at the scientific evidence regarding the H5N1 virus that causes avian flu, there are some facts about it that one should consider before buying respirators and stocking your basement full of canned goods. The main thing to keep in mind at this point, and probably the reason that 1/2 of the Earth's population hasn't died from avian flu is that the virus is currently not passed from human being to human being. This is why all but one of the documented cases in people have been due to people who live in very close proximity to birds. I'm not talking about living across the street from KFC either. I'm talking about sleeping in the same room as your chicken coop, which in some places in the world is how people roll.
The problem is that in its current form, H5N1 is bad news for those that "love" chicken in more than an extra tasty crispy sort of way, but in places where chickens or wild foul are not kept in the house, the virus is not particularly likely to make much of an impact, since even if a person gets it, it's highly unlikely that person will pass the virus to another person.
What scientists are concerned about is that if the virus mutates into a form that can be passed from human to human, H5N1 is pretty virulent, which means lots of dead people. But this is not unique to H5N1. There are millions of viruses out there, many of them we don't even know about because they can't be passed between people, so the likelihood of getting them is incredibly small. Any one of those viruses, particularly the unknown ones, could mutate and wipe us all out in a matter of months.
Does this mean that we shouldn't do anything? Of course not. The CDC has a great website (linked on the title) that has answers to questions about what the CDC and World Health Organization are doing to track the disease and isolate it if mutations start to show human to human transmission.
Nonetheless, there isn't a damn thing we can do to prevent a pandemic because if a super virus does come along, all the preparations in the world aren't going to save you. So don't worry about, and stop talking about it at work. You're annoying the living hell out of your co-workers, and then they're writing about it on their blogs.