EDITORIAL; G8 must get its priorities right
Serious thought should be given to a plea issued on Wednesday by scientists around the world calling on the G8 leaders not to get so caught up in the potential threat of bird flu that they divert their attention from the real global killers: TB, HIV/Aids and malaria. They issued the appeal ahead of the G8 summit in St Petersburg next month, which will have a bearing on the allocation of funds.
The World Health Organisation estimates that between them the three kill around six million people every year. By comparison, 129 people are known to have died of avian influenza since 2003 out of the 226 recorded cases. In Thailand, 14 out of the 22 who contracted bird flu have died. All caught it from handling or being in extreme proximity to infected fowl. There have been no proven cases of human-to-human transmission or a mutated H5N1 strain, and yet the hysteria surrounding the menace of bird flu has been so great that several panic-stricken families in the West have turned their homes into sterile bunkers and sealed themselves off from the outside world, while alarmists speak as though an imminent global pandemic were all but certain.
Noteworthy is that the call to keep a sense of proportion and not fall victim to scare tactics was issued by the national science academies of every G8 country with no dissenting voices, including the respected Royal Society in the UK and the National Academy for the Advancement of Sciences in the US.
While recognising the potential danger if bird flu makes the long-feared evolutionary jump to human-to-human transmission, Royal Society president Martin Rees said: “It is also crucially important for the global community not to forget that, at present, avian influenza is not the most significant disease concern for people globally. It is other emerging diseases and existing infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and malaria which are causing widespread illness and severe economic harm to developing countries.” He could also have added the increasing and very real threat of dengue fever to Thailand and this region.
The scientists’ statement calls for better funding of such efforts. Rather than competing for cash, the threat from bird flu should serve as a catalyst to combat existing epidemics, they say. For example, the WHO-backed plan to eradicate TB, which kills between two and three million annually, is $31 billion short of the $56 billion it needs, but world leaders have not put this on their agenda. No one has. It is not fashionable.
In the last three years, we have been through the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) health crisis and are continually on alert for bird flu. With so much experience, we should be confident of our ability to handle medical emergencies and have quarantine and control honed to a fine art, and we are ready to combat any mutated form of H5N1.
Yes, we should do everything in our power to control this potential threat and people are right to be wary of it. We must, and are, taking it seriously. But let us not forget that we will only be in serious danger if it crosses over, mutates and becomes a human-to-human strain. Then, and only then, are we at risk of an epidemic which could spiral into a pandemic if a vaccine could not be synthesised and distributed in time. Even so, it could get watered down in making the jump to humans and turn out to be nothing more than a really nasty flu. And such a jump, if it ever happened, could take years.
Medical technology, in the meantime, is moving fast to combat such threats. After all, this is not 1918 when 50 million died in a global flu outbreak.
We are already one of the best-prepared and equipped countries in the region in terms of being able to tackle a large-scale and fast-developing public health emergency. Disease containment is nothing new. The biggest danger lies in diverting money away from the real health plagues and scourges to subsidise non-essential research into something that most probably will never happen. Let us listen to the world’s most eminent and respected scientists on this and not the purveyors of doom, regardless of the political clout they might wield.