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Potentially Very Good News on Avian Flu

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The Wall Street Journal reports this morning (subscription required) that scientists are examining the possibility that H5N1 does not have near the mortality rate it is suspected of having, noting that some infected patients exhibit no or very mild symptoms:

The potential implications for the battle against bird flu are huge. Avian flu is currently believed to have a startlingly high fatality rate. The current official death rate for avian flu, calculated by using the WHO’s confirmed number of cases, is about 52%. However, if many people infected with avian flu develop only mild symptoms, or don’t get sick at all, there might be less reason to fear that the disease inevitably will kill many millions of people throughout the world.

There’s a black cloud to this silver lining though:

But a large number of cases that are mild or asymptomatic (exhibiting no signs of the disease) would also increase the likelihood that the virus will mutate into a form that can spread easily between humans, potentially causing a global epidemic, scientists say. Dozens or hundreds of undetected cases would mean “there’s that much more opportunity for this virus to learn to be transmissible,” says Scott Dowell, head of global disease detection for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “With every case, we worry about the possibility of the virus acquiring the ability to transmit from human to human.”

Bottom line: As science rushes to get a working knowledge of this bug, most governments are doing almost nothing, especially state and local governments in the U.S.

The threat to some sectors of the economy and to public health generally makes this indifference to risk shocking, and when the disease arrives, whether mild or severe in its manifestations, the initial panic will take a political toll on those who ought to have seen its approach but refused to even schedule a planning session.

(Mote, from the’s Avian Flu News Tracker:

Merrill Lynch trimmed its profitability estimate for Tyson Foods’ poultry division, citing avian-flu fears. Some European countries like Romania and Ukraine are mulling a ban on all chicken imports, including those from the U.S., even though the U.S. hasn’t reported an H5N1 cases, said Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry & Egg Export.

I wonder which businesses beyond poultry providers will see profits most impacted. Ideas on this front welcome at


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