Friday, July 01, 2005


A couple of years ago I pushed the line of insubordination with my daily complaints about our off-the-charts fearmongering on West Nile Virus. I also talked a former boss out of assigning a blowout package on the threat of weaponized smallpox, writing a lengthy memo that detailed the problems with her "we're all gonna die" thesis.

I tell these stories to prove a point to people who don't know me: Over the years, I've established a track record of reacting cautiously to the plague du jour school of scary journalism.

Having said that, you owe it to yourselves and your readers to get current on influenza Type A H5N1 as quickly as possible.

I put a "bird flu" story on my to-do list back on June 13, the day I left for two weeks vacation, on the advice of a local public health official I'd met through an unrelated story. I've been catching up on my reading since Tuesday, and I'm beginning to think that the H5N1 piece I've scheduled for July 25 may be overtaken by this rapidly developing story long before that orderly run date.

This is not to say that H5N1 is going to mutate into a pandemic form in the next three weeks. It may never do so. The point is not to scare ourselves, or our readers.

It's this: The issues related to a pandemic extend beyond mere health issues, and you don't have to be a public health official to be important. Every aspect of our society should be involved in planning for a pandemic, so this is not some "passive fear" story. There are things that can be done locally, in your home, county council or business, that will contribute to everyone's well-being should the infectuous mutation occur.

As usual, the annoyingly ahead-of-her-time Anna from NCFocus is way out in front on this one. Her site has good links. The infectious disease blog Effect Measure is an excellent starting point, and serves as a gateway to the flu wiki, which I printed out and read Thursday. For you blogosphere trackers, Canadian journalist Hellen Branswell's piece this morning was the first piece on "flu bloggers," and it's worth a read.

But the best background I've found so far was what my local epidemiologist told me to watch for more than two weeks ago: the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, featuring pieces by Laurie Garrett and Michael T. Osterholm. I didn't get my copy until this morning. Don't you make the same mistake.

The information is out there, and those of us in the business have a responsibility to make sure it reaches people in ways they can understand and use. We must calmly and clearly explain why H5N1 is worthy of the nation's attention, but before we do that, we should pause just long enough to make sure we understand the basics ourselves.