How to frighten yourself

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English: Different sites and outcomes of H1N1 ...

English: Different sites and outcomes of H1N1 versus H5N1 influenza infections. Based on Respiratory system.svg with annotations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you want to give yourself a good chilling scare then start reading articles on H7N9 – the mysterious and fairly deadly new strain of influenza that appears to be very widely spread amongst poultry in Eastern China.

No one seems very sure about how it is spreading (thankfully this appears to be just from bird to bird at the moment) or even which particular birds are the main vectors: there is some suggestion it could be city pigeons who are spreading it to poultry in markets, rather than the other way round.

But what is worse, far worse, is that if it did mutate and spread via human to human transmission we might be defenceless against it for a long time.

Now, if (or more likely, when) that happens the mutation may mean that it loses its current deadly force (as I understand it, at the moment scientists can only be sure that 20% of patients will recover – 20% have already died and the rest are ill – hopefully eventually to recover) but there is no guarantee of that. The 1918 flu did not lose its virulence on crossing into mammals and while H1N1 (swine flu) was not as bad as was once feared that was not because it was weakened on transmission.

Yet H1N1 has created a climate where politicians fear being accused of falling for scare stories and where the sort of viciously anti-science press we have in Britain would be the first to go on the attack if public money was spent to pump-prime anti-epidemic preparations. After all the Daily Mail still will not even acknowledge its despicable role in the anti-MMR scare which has caused a measles epidemic in Britain.

None of this is good.