Michael Fumento on Mutant Killer Chicken Flu
Date sent: Thu, 22 Jan 1998 23:04:04 -0500
From: Mike Fumento
Subject: op-ed on "Killer Mutant Flu" virus
American Enterprise Institute
1150 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
copyright 1998 Michael Fumento
January 23, 1998
"Mutant Killer Flu?" or Media Mendacity?
by Michael Fumento
There's good news about the so-called Hong Kong "avian flu." It
won't turn you into a bird. Actually, there's lots of good news, but
it's been hidden by feverishly sensationalist media.
"Race to Prevent World Epidemic of Lethal `Bird Flu,'" and "Hong
Kong `Bird Flu' Could be the Next Big Outbreak," blare the headlines.
"What is frightening about this flu strain is that it is unlike any
that has infected people before," cries NBC News. We repeatedly hear
of this new "deadly flu" or to cite one headline: "Mutant Killer
Now, for a reality vaccination.
ALL influenzas are "mutant killer viruses." Flu always mutates
at least slightly each year. That's why you need a flu shot each
year, because the antibodies that you got from the last one (or the
bout of flu you caught last year) will no longer afford you full
A flu that didn't kill would never be noticed. It would just be
one of myriad germs we carry that do us little or no harm. Each year
on average, about 20,000 Americans die of flu.
Finally, flu of course is always a virus.
Indeed, all flu is probably also "avian." Its "reservoir" is
generally ducks, and sometimes geese and chickens. They usually
don't suffer from it at all. But when their feces infect a water
supply and then domesticated animals (usually pigs), they can
transfer it to humans.
So what SHOULD we be concerned about with this or any other new
Essentially three things. First, how dramatically different is it
from previous strains? Second, how contagious does it appear to be?
Third, how severe does it appear to be?
The first factor is the only one of real concern in this case.
As noted, each year flu alters itself at least slightly. If it is
just slight, the exposure we got from previous strains either through
shots or the disease itself will probably afford some of protection.
We won't get as sick as we otherwise might. If we're lucky, we won't
get sick at all even though we've been exposed.
These slight changes in the virus are called "drifts."
But every so often (five times this century), the virus has
mutated so drastically that it's called a "shift." When this
happens, you have no antibody protection at all. For your immune
system, it's a whole new ball game. Chances are you will get sicker
than you would otherwise. The sick and elderly will have a greater
chance of death.
The last such shift that became an epidemic was the Hong Kong flu
of 1968-1969, in which 34,000 Americans died instead of the usual
20,000 or so.
This new flu has been verified to be a bonafide shift. But
that's been the ONLY major cause for worry.
Consider factor two. There is no evidence that this strain is
highly contagious. Indeed, many of the researchers studying it
believe they have yet to see it be transmitted from person-to-person
at all, though in one case a health care worker with extensive
contact with a victim later developed antibodies to the virus.
Nobody is known to have passed it to a family member. Further,
remember, Hong Kong is one of the most crowded places on earth. "The
efficiency of transmission from human-to human should not be high or
there should be hundreds of thousands of such cases in the territory
by now," noted Hong Kong's health director. Since few Americans come
into contact with living Chinese fowl, this is quite good news for
Finally, there is the issue of deadliness. Repeatedly we see
invoked the deadliest flu epidemic ever, the so-called "Spanish
Influenza" that killed over 20 million people world-wide and half a
million Americans in 1918-1919. Horrible stuff, not to mention a
slur on Spain since the first recorded cases were in the United
But the yellow journalists appear to be out of luck this time.
So far, the new flu's deadliness appears to be about average, with
six deaths to date out of 18 confirmed cases, three suspected cases,
and probably a large number of cases too mild to have been reported.
Add to that many unique factors about the situation surrounding
the Spanish Flu. At the time, World War I was just ending and there
was tremendous confusion everywhere. Military camps were packed like
Tokyo subway cars. There were no antibiotics to treat bacterial flu
complications; now we have a huge number. There were no drugs that
acted directly against the virus. Now there are two, with two more
highly promising ones in the pipeline, one of which could reach the
market later this year.
Finally, there was no flu vaccine back then. True, this strain
could catch us off guard next flu season (in even the worst case it's
too late to do much damage this flu season). But then it would be a
matter of quickly making batches and allocating the first ones to the
elderly and sick.
The mere fact that this is a "shifted" virus strain justifies our
having sent our top researchers to Hong Kong to study it and even
make emergency contingency plans. That's exactly what we've done.
But exaggerating the risks of a deadly flu pandemic and failing to
point out that medical science has advanced tremendously since
1968--much less 1918 can do little more than cause an hysteria
Michael Fumento is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute and author most recently of The Fat of the Land: The
Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves.