Wisconsin just reported its first case of bird flu— Sound the alarm! That’s right, bird flu! Right here in the United States! Where are the Hazmat suits?
Wait a second. Before joining the collective freakout, take a look at the fine print. It is a case of bird flu in a chicken, not a person, and it’s been in Minnesota for a while (plus Canada before that). In fact, 1.2 million turkeys recently were slaughtered—or, more scientifically, “culled”—because of infection in the herd.
Granted, this is the first farmed chicken demonstrated to have the infection. Previous cases were among gobblers as noted, as well as chickens residing in small backyard coops. But it’s been here States-side for months, spreading slowly.
That simple truth of course doesn’t prevent an oh-my-God headline from popping up—or implementation of the brutal Middle Ages intervention that works so well: the cull. The U.S. and most countries are very good at culling, leading a million and one chickens or ducks or turkeys—or even cows and pigs—down the plank for the quick slaughter. Lucky farmers have enough insurance to absorb the loss; unlucky ones don’t. And for those who view the bird soul as a re-incarnated human soul, well, there is no real consolation. Except, of course, the chance to occupy another animal shape.
The perps in this kerfuffle, as in every similar bird flu kerfuffle, are the ducks. Wild ducks. Their migratory winter flight patterns are the connection between hemispheres and continents. And please note that a duck with bird flu is not necessary a sick duck or a dead duck. Wild birds with flu seldom become ill. Many can tolerate the infection and feel nothing at all, so that flying six or seven thousand miles is simply a brisk day at the track.
But birds being birds, and bird droppings being bird droppings, the flu virus that routinely riddles the avian gut is transmitted. Stated more bluntly, unlike in humans, fecal-oral transmission of influenza is common in the bird world.
Why then is this news today? Yes, there is a case in an egg-laying bird (or birds) in Scott Walker’s home state. And yes, there will be a heartbreaking big league culling in Wisconsin that may well be completed by the time you read this. And boy howdy, we must always be on our toes for this and countless other pathogens, as the long and tragic story of Ebola 2014 and 2015 demonstrated. But a single chicken? After months of avian cases in the U.S.? What gives, already?
It’s an unanswerable question. Who can explain why anything becomes newsworthy, whether from the need to distract us from something like the announcement that teen throb look-alike Marco Rubio is running for president or because a science-ish story seems to grab a reader better than anything not related to Kim Kardashian. Or perhaps there is the cheap thrill aspect of another horror movie-like tale, with a runaway disease certain to eradicate mankind. No matter, the story is here and the story is accurate, just inflated to make it seem like people, not birds, will need culling.
This approach is fine, a victimless crime of sorts, unless suddenly, as occurred with Ebola, the disease really is scary as hell and really does kill thousands and lasts months and months. Or, more likely though less dramatic, the current bird flu turns into something like the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza that infected 60 million people in the U.S. but today scarcely is recalled by anyone but eggheads at CDC and a few diehard infectious disease experts.
It can become very difficult, in today’s crowded news slate, to recall after a few years which scare came true and which was just another roller-coaster ride of manufactured terror created for release, not reality.
My guess is that this one is for the birds and will stay there in the flock. I imagine millions of birds will be killed and that the poultry industry will wobble for a while (not a small issue), but that’s about it. Oh maybe we will get a coughing farmer or two, but probably not.
See, when we have had time to crank up the entire panic-in-the-streets Wurlitzer, the CDC and its smaller state counterparts do a fine job both in scaring us senseless so that the truth seems mild (confer: the 2009 flu pandemic you forgot about) and in establishing a system of too much culling (flu) or too much isolation (Ebola) to assure that the horse stays in the barn.
Lots of pointless blather then? No not really—because it turns out that worry, and a lot of it, is a very effective public health approach.