For The Media, Avian Flu Seems To Have Flown The Coup

(AP / CBS)
When it comes to the specter of an avian flu pandemic, it's a well-established fact that I occupy a firm place among the Chicken Little crowd. People used to brush my concerns away with a flip of the hand and a comment like, "you watch too many movies." But after the all the attention the issue received last year, I stopped hearing such dismissals. It was just one year ago this week, after all, that the White House was preparing to hold a high-level exercise to test preparations for an outbreak in the United States. International organizations were in full-fledged "warning" mode, local communities were being urged to make their own emergency plans and just about every bird in the world was being looked at with suspicion.

Thankfully the feared worldwide epidemic has so far failed to materialize and all the talk about death rates, quarantines and a basic breakdown of civilization has faded with it. Does that mean everyone can go back to shooting me those exasperated looks when I mention the subject? Maybe, but just because the U.S. press has decided that the panic has passed doesn't mean we won't see a resurrection this winter. Google News the phrase bird flu and you'll find the issue is still getting attention – but mostly in the foreign press. Still, hints of a revival are there, like this story from CNN medical producer Caleb Hellerman:

A year ago, headlines were screaming about a looming disaster: the rapid spread of bird flu across two-thirds of the globe. The H5N1 strain of the virus was killing more than half its human victims. Experts were urging the government to stockpile medicine and experimental vaccines.

Dr. Robert Webster, whose vaccine the U.S. government plans to use in case of an outbreak, told CNN at the time, "If this virus learns to transmit human to human and maintains that level of killing, we've got a global catastrophe."

That worldwide pandemic hasn't yet materialized, and bird flu has been out of the headlines for a while. But we may be in for another round of news.

Last week South Korea announced two new outbreaks in poultry. And Dr. Timothy Uyeki of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said he's bracing for another surge in human infections. "When the temperature drops and the humidity drops, that's when you start seeing more poultry outbreaks. And when you see poultry outbreaks, that's when you see human cases."

I know it's much easier and enjoyable to make light of the hype which seemed to surround this issue last year. It's certainly not as sexy an illness as polonium-210 poisonings. But it's probably something, like flu shots, that will be part of our cold-and-flu season coverage for years to come so we may as well get used to it. Some of us may even find it to be self-affirming of our paranoia.