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Puppies, Sex and Avian Flu · 2005-10-08

a dead bird on the street, is it bird flu?

We have three dead geese, who died from bird flu, in the Danube delta in Romania, which is considered Europe main land. This news serves as a great hook to paint dooms day fantasies. Especially mass media is among the most active dooms day painters.

Though I recommended panicing when I covered the issue in november 2004, I think it is high time to review. What do we know about bird flu? It comes from south east asia, where human beings and birds live closely together in a tropic environment and here are the figures:

Within the last two(!) years we had according to wikipedia...
Reported cases:116
Fatal cases:60
Mortality rate:51.7%

Hey wait, the conventional flu has fatal cases by the thousand every year and here we have by now sixty fatal cases. Ok, no need to worry about that, is it? Now for the high mortality rate. We have to take the possibility into account, that the H5N1 virus might become infective among humans leading to a mortality rate which is higher than everything we have seen comming with the flu. Not even the 1918 flu pandemic reached this rate. But, and this is an important point, does the figure 51.7% really decribe the actual mortality rate of H5N1?

The weak point is, that the given mortality rate implicitly assumes that the number of reported cases equals the number of actual cases. This might not be true. Of course not every chicken trader and cock fight manager in Jakarta catching a sneezer goes to the hospital and not every case of a feverish infect in the Mekong delta is reported to the WHO. On the other hand, every fatal case of flu is most certainly reported. So, there is a bias in what we observe, isn't it? Furthermore, we have very few observations, which is good, but statistically bad at the same time. Statistically, few observations mean big errors in forecasting.

I'm not saying that H5N1 is a little 'nose run'. I just want to remind you that we do not know a lot about H5N1 and that 'not knowing' has always been a great canvas to paint dooms day onto and dooms day paintings sell like puppies and sex.


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