Saturday, April 14, 2007

Why Is The News So Slow?


# 665



For the past several days, avian flu news has dried up.  The news wires carry very few stories, and most of those are about poultry cullings, or plans for future vaccine manufacturing plants.  We seem to have entered a quiescent period.


Hopefully, this simply means that not much is happening right now.


Of course, the media has a short attention span.  Bird flu hasn't turned into the `big story' everyone expected a year ago.   At least not yet.  For the average reader, most of what is going on is pretty dull.  We don't have bodies stacked up, or massive quarantines in place, and so the media see's  little to report.


While I'm hopeful this slow period indicates things are truly slowing down, the lack of coverage doesn't necessarily mean nothing is happening.  The virus is still out there, still spreading, and still mutating.  And there are serious doubts that we are getting timely reports from some of the countries currently embroiled in the bird flu battle.


Indonesia, which as been one of our primary concerns, isn't going out of their way to provide information right now.  Some of this is due, no doubt, to the continuing impasse between the Health Ministry and the WHO.  We're told they will begin sending samples to the WHO by June, but will have to wait to see if that really happens.


Complicating matters, our ability to read local reporting, written in the Bahasa language, has been compromised for the past several days by the translation site being offline.   Internet Newshounds are getting understandably fidgety, not being able to track the news.


Indonesia is beset with many problems, and bird flu is but one of them.  Over the past couple of years they've suffered earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami's, flooding, major outbreaks of Dengue Fever, and now, according to the latest reports, several villages are quarantined due to an outbreak of anthrax.


It's not hard to understand why, in the face of all of these problems, the Indonesians aren't quick to detail what is going on with their bird flu situation.   They are a poor country, with limited resources, battling a variety of serious problems. 


Egypt has had 16 human cases of bird flu since the first of the year.  We generally don't hear much until a case has been confirmed.  We do know that they are testing a lot of people, most of whom test negative.   It is no secret that the Ministry of Health holds information close to the vest, and so it is difficult to truly know the situation on the ground there.


The good news is, we have NAMRU-3 (Naval Medical Research Unit) on the ground in Egypt, and they have proven their ability to track changes in the virus time and again.  Were it not for their involvement, I'd be far more concerned over the situation there.


China continues to be a mystery, and we often don't hear about cases until weeks after they enter the hospital.  Rumors abound over what is really going on in that country, but in fairness many of those stories remain unproven.


China has, in the past,  been less than forthcoming with information.   They delayed releasing information about the SARS outbreak in 2003, and that contributed to its spread.  The Chinese press is tightly controlled, and so much of what goes on there remains murky.


Countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Laos continue to have outbreaks in poultry, but few human infections are reported.    It is impossible to know if they are simply fortunate in that regard, or if they are missing cases.  


And of course Africa is the great unknown. 


There is very little surveillance in countries like Nigeria, Sudan, and the Ivory Coast.  People sicken, die, and are quickly buried without ever seeing a doctor.   The average lifespan of a Nigerian is about 48 years, which is a testament to the number of diseases that ravage that country.    An outbreak could occur in any of a dozen African nations, and we'd probably not hear about it for quite some time.


The threat of a pandemic has not abated, even if the news is slow.  We should not be lulled into complacency.   As long as the virus is out there, it has the potential to make the leap to a pandemic strain.


For now, though, I'll happily take this break in the news, and hope that  things really are slowing down.  


Maybe in time, I'll actually believe it.