Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Column, October 25, 2005

IT is rather apt that the latest threat that the sky is about to fall in should have a chicken as its source.
All over the country normally healthy people have been struck down by a terrible condition. The symptoms are obvious, the brain to cease functioning at a normal level and sufferers begin to flap.
Far more virulent than any bird flu, Chicken Licken Syndrome has entered the country and spread like wildfire causing journalists and health ‘experts’ alike to run around like…..well, headless chickens.
Avian flu has arrived in the UK and you would think it had already filled the hospital wards and mortuaries to overflowing. Instead its only victim thus far has been one ex-parrot.
There is no doubt that avian flu is a terrible threat. The flu pandemic that cost millions of lives just after the Great War is evidence of that and that was probably an avian flu.
But we appear to have lost our heads over one dead parrot.
Firstly, this avian flu has yet to cross the species barrier easily. Thousands of people are not being infected by birds and dying. A handful of people who came into close proximity with birds have died.
So far H5N1 has claimed the lives of just 100 people. Global pandemic? Not yet.
Secondly, if this disease were suddenly going to hop across the humans it would not be doing so because one parrot had died in quarantine in the UK.
It will do it in the vast flocks of birds in South East Asia where there are lots of humans with flu and lots of birds with flu and where there is a chance that the flu strains can swap genetic material and become a pandemic virus.
So, can we all just calm down a little.
The fact is that normal everyday flu is a huge killer already and it grim reaps our elderly every year and yet we have not panicked about that.
Is it because it’s ok for OAPs to die of flu, but anything that threatens the young and healthy, well, something must be done?
Also, there’s another cast-iron, proven, certain killer in our midst which we’re turning a blind eye to.
Every year 114,000 people die from smoking-related disease. That’s a certainty, that’s definitely going to happen.
That’s not some remotely possible epidemic that will only happen if the right genetic and environmental circumstances allow it. The hospital beds will be packed by people whose lives will be ended because of exposure to tobacco smoke.
And are we stockpiling nicotine patches and quarantining anyone with a 40-a-day habit who insists on smoking in public like an incendiary Typhoid Mary? No, we’ll make noises about banning smoking and we’ll make eye-catching adverts that show the effect of smoke on a baby, but in the meantime we’ll happily allow the tobacco companies to make a mint from killing people.
And when we finally get around to making the West an uncomfortable place for them to trade we will happily wave them off to Africa or China where billions of customers await their pernicious products.
But you may say smoking is not really a proper disease like flu. Fair enough, let’s take a real disease then, like malaria.
Between 350 and 500 million cases of it every single year, killing one million people every year.
Again, that’s not some theoretical possibility based on enough chickens and humans coming into contact to produce a killer strain. Malaria is doing this right now, across the globe.
And yet how many Western tourists jet off to exotic destinations and then forget to take their malaria medication, or else ditch it because it gives them a dicky tummy?
Yet put the same person next to a chicken that looks a bit under the weather and they would have a fit of the screaming ab-dabs.
We need to get a grip of risk.
A man who keeps birds of prey was on the radio yesterday saying that he was ‘incredibly worried’ about avian flu.
The nightmare scenario for him was a little migratory flu-carrying bird finding its way into his cages where it would be eaten by his birds who would promptly fall off the perch.
So, never mind that this is a disease which flourishes among chickens, who, the last time I checked, do not migrate very far. Never mind the fact that out of the billions of birds worldwide it is more likely that his aviary would be hit by a meteorite than by bird flu.
No, never mind all that, let’s all get incredibly worried shall we?
You are not at risk, at the moment, from bird flu. If your neighbour sneezes in your vicinity do not book yourself in to the doctor for a course of Tamiflu.
Yet while we are all terrified of catching flu, once we have caught any disease we behave in an utterly bizarre manner.
How many people, once they have caught some bug, instead of doing the decent thing and taking to their bed, dose themselves up with something lemony and then struggle in to work to infect their colleagues?
They’ve all seen the advert, the bloke who sniffles at home loses his job to some eager beaver. The message is, get some paracetamol down you and get yourself behind that desk, otherwise you might soon be clearing it.
And every year bosses organisation moan about the number of sick days taken by staff and yet they’re probably the very bosses who are encouraging their staff not to go off sick, so creating the pool of infection that causes their staff to go off sick.
Better to lose one worker to flu for a week than have them struggle in and infect your whole shopfloor.
So, if you catch anything this winter, it will probably not be bird flu, it will be plain old earthbound flu.
If you do, take to your bed, keep warm, plenty of fluids, and try not infect the whole neighbourhood by heroically struggling in by bus.

MY sometime correspondent Hannah contacts me to have a few words about Tryweryn.
She’s none too pleased with my suggestion that the present administration of Liverpool and its people have nothing to apologise for and that the real blame lies in a political system which rendered Wales powerless to resist the flooding of the valley.
This, says Hannah, makes me English, a scouser and a racist.
The English and scouser bit I can understand. After all, if you’re blinkered enough to believe Liverpool owes Wales ‘reparations’ then you’ll resort to any sort of name-calling.
But the racist bit, where did that come from?
Hannah continues: “What has happened to the Irish, aren’t they on the map any more.”
I’m afraid she’s lost me there. Just how are the Irish relevant to this and why is my apparent deliberate snubbing of them in relation to Tryweryn racist?
Answers on a postcard marked Barmy please.

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