Does This Bug Have Legs?

By Edward Tenner

The H1N1 epidemic began as a prologue to tragedy and is ending like a Gilda Radner - Emily Litella sketch from the old Saturday Night Live: "Never mind." Yet it might still mean life or death for many people. On the positive side, the Guardian reports that British scientists have established the virus's full genetic code, and that the pace of vaccine research is encouraging. Further,

[a]t a meeting of Asian health ministers in Bangkok today, the WHO director general, Dr Margaret Chan, said the world was "better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history", largely because of precautions taken over the threat of bird flu.

But the newspaper also notes rising skepticism in the UK and around the world about public health warnings. Authorities fear it could imperil a possible return of a more virulent strain of the virus this fall:

"People are taking a sigh of relief too soon," said Dr Richard Besser, acting director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The measures we've been talking about - the importance of hand-washing, the importance of covering coughs, the real responsibility for staying home when you're sick and keeping your children home when you're sick - I'm afraid that people are going to say, 'Ah, we've dodged a bullet. We don't need to do that,'" he said.

Welcome to the world of "risk communication," a hybrid of corporate public relations, government public health, sociology, psychology, and lobbying. Lindsay Tanner and Mike Stobbe of the Associated Press have noted other experts' alarm about the spread of skepticism.

So the interaction of viruses, animal production, transportation, and communication -- especially, of course, the Web -- is a system that may be growing more complex, and potentially dangerous.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/05/does-this-bug-have-legs/17311/