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Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

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  • Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

    23 February 2006

    Bird flu and Chicken Little culture
    Why are critics of the politics of fear turning into scaremongers about the threat of an avian flu pandemic?

    As headlines such as 'Human Avian flu pandemic risk increases' (1) proliferate in respectable publications, one thing that definitely is increasing is the reality gap between the medical facts about bird flu, and the public reaction to it.

    As Rob Lyons details elsewhere on spiked, bird flu is not sweeping the globe. The lethal H5N1 strain is currently known to have infected 170 people in Asia since it was first identified in the late 1990s, leading to 92 deaths (see Bird flu: an infectious panic, by Rob Lyons). Its spread elsewhere to date has been very limited, and entirely confined to birds: one dead wild duck in France, six other EU countries reporting a few cases in wild birds, two infected chickens in Austria that had been kept with an infected swan in an animal sanctuary. None of these European cases could in any way be described as an outbreak. Meanwhile in America, there is no sign of bird flu .

    Apart from one or two isolated cases, H5N1 has passed only from infected birds to people who work and live with them. Nobody has caught it from eating chicken. The much-feared pandemic-causing mutant strain, which could pass easily from human to human, still does not exist - and nobody knows when or even whether it will ever develop. Avian flu remains a problem for those in the developing world who live cheek-by-beak with their birds. But there is no real evidence to suggest that it is a growing threat to us in the West. Those who declare that 'it is not a matter of if, but when a 1918-style flu pandemic strikes' could have made the same point every year since…1918.

    Yet Western concern about bird flu appears to be rising all the time. For some time now, there has been an ugly public auction among experts to see who can come up with the largest projected death toll from a pandemic. Now there is another one to see who can suggest the shortest time-scale for the pandemic to strike - any advance on 'within 18 months'? And before one person in Europe has actually contracted the disease, there are experts warning that new, more virulent strains of avian flu will come back to haunt us all again and again into the future.

    Just this week we have seen a declaration that France is on a 'bird flu war footing', a major EU health summit with a public row about the relative merits of vaccinating or slaughtering the Continent's poultry population, and publicity for UK officials' plan to give medical staff military protection from the angry mobs which they imagine will soon be demanding avian flu vaccine.

    For its part, the British government has tried to hold the line against hysteria and appear reasonable, issuing a new 'don't panic' message. But it is repeatedly being outbid by opposition politicians, experts, campaigners and media voices accusing it of complacency or a cover-up, and demanding more and more precautionary measures. In this, New Labour has made a rod for its own back, by institutionalising the precautionary principle at the heart of government policy on everything from food dye to mobile phones, and by emphasising the need to reduce risk on every front. Now, fearful of being accused of not intervening enough to prevent a potential threat to public health (almost the most serious charge a politician can face these days), the government's response is to up the ante further, to try to demonstrate that it is fully prepared. And so we go on.

    Why is this reality gap growing wider now? We have talked for some time on spiked about the creeping spread of the politics of fear and the rise of risk-aversion, particularly in relation to matters of personal health and lifestyle. We have reached the point where we often seem to live in a sort of Chicken Little culture, in which many are predisposed to panic about the sky falling in every time an acorn falls on their head (or a trace of nut appears in their food).

    Yet with bird flu, we appear to be witnessing an even worse loss of perspective. It is striking how many people will say that they agree with spiked's criticism of other manufactured panics, but not this one. For them the imminent prospect of a bird flu pandemic is real, like the fox that ate Chicken Little while she was worrying about non-existent threats. In particular, many of those who accuse the Bush and Blair regimes of exaggerating the threat of terrorism are now castigating those same governments for not doing enough to counter the threat of bird flu, and for covering up the real risk it poses (see A tale of two scares, by Brendan O'Neill).

    A bird flu pandemic in humans, if it were ever to occur, would indeed be a terrible thing, immeasurably more dangerous than the scaremongering nonsense we frequently hear about the threat from pesticides in food or whatever. Yet the public and political furore about a hypothetical bird flu epidemic caused by an as-yet non-existent disease is not so very different from the other scares of our time. Indeed, it is drawing its strength from the long list of health panics that have infected the body politic in recent years. The imminent prospect of a bird flu pandemic appears plausible, precisely because it jabs at a raw public nerve that has already been over-sensitised.

    For a start, the notion of uncontrollable new diseases and viral strains emerging to threaten civilisation has been a mainstay of health debates in the West for some time. Despite the fact that we live longer and healthier lives than ever before, thanks in part to the wonders of modern medicine, our loss of faith in society's achievements means that we fear the worst from any passing bacteria. Ever since we were told that heterosexual AIDS would cause carnage across Western societies, it seems there has always been a possible disease-related disaster just around the corner. We have been warned about the emergence of new super bugs, even new plagues. We have been told to expect massive death tolls from new strains such as vCJD - the human form of mad cow disease - from such alien diseases as ebola or the flesh-eating bug, Necrotising fasciitis, and from fresh global epidemics such as SARS.

    The failure of each of these in turn to wreak the predicted devastation in the West has done nothing to stop the stream of disease scares. As each one fades from the headlines, another has come along to take its place. It seems that we have had to live with the constant expectation of medical catastrophe, with experts always assuming the worst-case scenario to be the most likely.

    In these doom-laden circumstances, the argument that a fatal flu epidemic is imminent has inevitably taken hold. After all, flu is a real illness that we all have experience of, a far more plausible menace than a flesh-eating bug. At times, health authorities have almost appeared to be trawling for evidence of a flu epidemic. Only a couple of winters back the UK government's chief medical officer came under fire from leading doctors for declaring on thin evidence that the spread of flu had reached epidemic proportion - a clear case of premature epidemicitis.

    The notion of an invisible, intangible threat that comes out of the air exerts a powerful influenceThe panic about a potential bird flu pandemic also feeds off the constant diet of food scare stories that we have been force-fed for years. Despite the fact that our general diet in the West is now better and cheaper than ever before, we have learnt to fear our food as a health risk. Since eating beef was blamed for vCJD, leading to predictions of half a million deaths among carnivorous Britons, many other foodstuffs have been put under the microscope and labelled a potential menace. Normal and necessary parts of our diet, such as salt and sugar and fat, have also been re-defined as toxins to be banished from our bodies.

    Chicken - the white meat choice of the healthy eating lobby - has often been one of the 'safe havens' sought out by those scared away from other foods. Now our feathered friend has been put in the frame for bird flu. The fact that no link has ever been shown between eating chicken and contracting avian flu, or that most people in Britain only ever meet a chicken in the chilled section of the supermarket, makes no difference. The everyday familiarity of chicken makes the threat seem all the more plausible. In several European countries, the poultry industry appears to be in imminent danger of ruin.

    Here the fear of bird flu also connects with widespread concerns about modern man's supposedly unhappy relationship with nature. Campaigners claim that the real danger of a pandemic is closely related to the spread of modern battery farming techniques, and the supermarket-driven demand for cheap chicken at whatever the costs to public health and the environment. These are the usual suspects in most food scares. The allegations ignore the evidence that bird flu has struck in developing societies where - as happened in rural Turkey recently - children catch it from playing with the heads and bodies of infected dead birds. Somehow living in a developed Western society where chickens are farmed rather than living as members of the family, and kids get to play with video games rather than poultry carcasses, doesn't seem like such a bad thing. Yet the bird flu furore has been further stoked up by these increasingly popular prejudices about modern farming and humanity's supposed abuse of nature. Facts are no competition for emotive messages today.

    Finally, the fear of bird flu has taken wing for much the same reason that other, more ridiculous, health scares can appear credible. It has the right qualities to play upon the fears and insecurities of our atomised societies. The notion of an invisible, intangible threat that comes out of the air has already exerted a powerful influence through panics about mobile phone masts or electric power lines. The trust-nobody-or-nothing idea that the familiar can suddenly be a threat is a standard component of many panics. And like the fear of terrorism, the worry about an 'inevitable' bird flu pandemic speaks to many individuals who feel powerless to determine their fate these days. Thus Oprah Winfrey, seen as a touchstone of popular opinion in America, has declared that she feels 'helpless' in the face of the inevitable pandemic, and is getting vaccinated immediately. (Good luck with that one, Oprah - even a billionaire celebrity queen will find it hard to buy a vaccine against a flu strain that has not developed and may never do so.)

    The reality gap between the facts about bird flu and the politicised public reaction to it has left us with a confused and dangerous mess of a situation where, as I have noted elsewhere, UK policy seems to be run in tandem by those two old BBC sitcom characters simultaneously shouting 'Don't Panic!' and 'We're Doomed!'.

    Of course there are sensible, if limited, contingency plans that the professionals ought to be preparing to deal with bird flu around the world. But that is something else entirely from the public circus in which everybody in the West competes to see who can best talk up the threat in order to appear the most determined to counter it.

    There has been much talk of late in Britain about the lessons of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, or of SARS. One real lesson of these crises, however, has rarely been mentioned. The worst damage done when foot-and-mouth broke out five years ago did not involve that non-fatal animal disease. It was done by the authorities' heavy-handed attempts to show that they were taking no risks, by declaring the countryside 'closed' and sending in the military to wage war on cows and sheep.

    Similarly, the worst damage done during the international SARS outbreak three years ago had little to do with the disease itself. That was identified, contained and turned back in exemplary fashion by health agencies and experts, with around 800 deaths worldwide rather than the many thousands predicted. The wider damage was done by the politically-motivated attempts to demonstrate that the authorities were protecting public health, by effectively quarantining entire economies and closing down travel with dire - and completely unnecessary - consequences.

    The Chicken Little culture makes it almost impossible to have a sensible discussion about how we should respond to something like bird flu, and to situate these fears in some wider perspective. The sky may not be falling on our heads just yet, but even some of the more rational among us do appear to be getting clouds on the brain.

    Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

  • #2
    Re: Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

    This is a story that is aching to be taken apart one paragraph at a time and refuted statement by statement..,

    Mike Hume is living in a euphoric cloud of "not in my lifetime," and "our health system si so good..,"


    • #3
      Re: Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

      Whilst that could be easily done, it would also be a demonstration in futility. When a person, particularly an editor of something, writes an opinion they take ownership of it. If they didn't wholeheartedly believe their own argument before they wrote it, they certainly will afterwards.

      Yesterday I read a leader from 'The Thunderer' (The UK Times) which was 100% BS, today it's Spiked. Next week, next month or next year, these same publications will be demanding action to save their readers, but it will be too late by then.

      The people I feel sorry for are the silly people who will take this and use it bolster their own concept that bird flu is a red herring. By the time they realise it's a great white shark aiming to bite their ass off, they'll be asking why the government didn't warn them. On this last topic, they may have an argument (but it'll be academic by then).


      • #4
        Re: Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

        Originally posted by ukcz
        The people I feel sorry for are the silly people who will take this and use it bolster their own concept that bird flu is a red herring. By the time they realise it's a great white shark aiming to bite their ass off, they'll be asking why the government didn't warn them. On this last topic, they may have an argument (but it'll be academic by then).
        I feel sorry not for those who already have the erroneous concept in their head, but for those who are clueless to start with, and take this kind of dogma to heart, and thenceforth cannot be swayed to the truth of the matter.


        • #5
          Re: Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

          He lost me at the "no one has caught BF from eating infected chicken".


          • #6
            Re: Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

            Originally posted by Goju
            He lost me at the "no one has caught BF from eating infected chicken".
            He lost me well before that..,

            He stated, "...bird flu is not sweeping the globe."

            And later goes on to say,"Its spread elsewhere to date has been very limited, and entirely confined to birds..,"

            So, 14+ countires in two months isn't "sweeping the globe" after it hit at least another 15 or so in the prior 8 years?

            And the "limited spread" statement really belittles the families of the 92 people who died. What? They Don't count.

            Thank goodness we can all make our own minds up..,



            • #7
              Re: Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

              This is by far the BEST article I've seen which expresses the position of those who disagree with the majority of the posters here. Mick Hume has done us all a favor.

              Mick Hume has set out clear lines of argument.

              He has recognized that vested interests are insensitive, incomeptent or vicious in their dissemination of information. I agree.

              He has recognized a failure of those expressing concern to provide underlying factual progressions which will allow the reader to understand that there is a change either transpiring or there are circumstances which have changed and which in turn increase the probability of a negative change affecting humans to transpire.

              I'm sorry, I'm short on time, so I can't afford the luxury of pursuing these thoughtlines. The bottomline is that Mick Hume has opened for us the opportunity to parse and then devise effective communications responses which will deliver the message we wish communicated.

              At the National Summit in MN last week, Peter Sandman spoke. Peter's view is simple: If one causes outrage, the people will respond. (Like blowing up the golden domed mosque in Iraq...the people will respond.) What he missed is that the outrage must be over something which threatens a personally held value, not just an external reality. (When you hear that your neighbor's spouse is having an affair, that can cause indignation; when you hear that your spouse is having an affair, your personal value system has just been touched.)

              What has happened over time is that we ourselves first needed to become assured that our own understandings are accurate and then we have needed to encounter, and we continue to need to encounter, the personally held value which will be as powerful as blowing up the right building or something equally threatening.

              We will need to turn to this topic if we can expect that our interest and follow-on efforts will serve ourselves by serving others.


              • #8
                Re: Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

                Some background on Mick Hume:

                Mick Hume is a journalist and erstwhile organiser of the Revoluntionary Communist Party. Editor of Living Marxism, columnist for The Times (London) and a regular contributor to other publications. He was the editor of LM Magazine (which he launched, originally as Living Marxism, in 1988) until it was forced to close in 2000 following a libel suit brought by ITN. Hume is fortysomething.
                Last edited by sharon sanders; February 24, 2006, 11:02 AM.


                • #9
                  Re: Opinion: Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

                  Though he has many of his facts wrong, I think he speaks to the nagging thought in the back of many people's minds as they look at their huge investment in their preps... ""What if I'm wrong?". Now it isn't enough for me to stop prepping, but from time to time it gives me pause.

                  While I resist the fear mongering for political gain of the current administration, I have contemplated my acceptance of this threat. I think it gets to a central issue-what are credible threats and what is manipulation? And in this day of government propaganda, spin machines, group think/echo chambers (remember WMDs?) and the fevers that sweep the Internet, it is impt to have a health dose of doubt, self-doubt included. I hope I will continue both my healthy skepticism and my preparations, I think both are important.

                  A thought provoking article overall.