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The Scientific Voice and Its Role in the Avian Flu Scare

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by jeltovski via Morguefile.com

By Adele Blackler

In 1997 the first reported cases of humans being infected with the avian flu virus H5N1 emerged out of Hong Kong.  In the following months and years, editorials and news articles warned repeatedly of the deadly pandemic that was about to erupt.  During the pandemic panic governments stockpiled vaccines, restricted trade of poultry products and slaughtered millions of possibly infected chickens, while private citizens canceled plane tickets to countries with reported outbreaks.  But the H5N1 pandemic never happened; neither did the SARS or H7N7 pandemics that were predicted around the same time.

Some of the more hysterical articles warning of the H5N1 pandemic came from very well respected scientists, who wrote editorials in high-impact scientific journals and gave interviews to the press.  With very little scientific evidence to back up their claims, scientists speculated about how many people would die if human-to-human transmission occurred and theorized that imported feathers could carry the virus.  Mainstream media caught wind of these publications, and soon summaries and quotes were everywhere in the news. From January-July 2005 a total of 156 articles on avian flu were published by British newspapers, amplifying the scientists’ message and heightening public fear (1).

The high-profile articles spurred the public and governments into action, creating an overwhelming demand for flu vaccines and subsequent vaccine shortage.  However, in the end the vaccines weren’t needed.  H5N1 never achieved human-to-human transmission and slowly faded into the background, leaving instead a public that was resentful of the scare articles.  When it became evident that there was no pandemic, backlash from the media occurred.  One article drew a comparison to the children’s book Chicken Little, saying “…today’s doom-mongering is not dreamt up by some panicky bird-brain. It is spread by leading scientists, serious media organisations and government bodies. In Chicken Little Britain, the hens have taken over the farmyard.” (2)

The question remains: were these scientists right to publish such highly speculative articles?  Did they honestly believe what they wrote?  Or were they perhaps indulging in a little hyperbole in an effort to heighten public awareness and provoke governments into taking preemptive action?  Perhaps a more important question is, has the general public learned to ignore ominous predictions of deadly flu outbreaks?  And if so, what will happen when there is a worldwide flu pandemic?

  1. Nerlich B, Halliday C. “Avian flu: the creation of expectations in the interplay between science and the media.” Sociol Health Illn. 2007 Jan;29(1):46-65.
  2. Mick Hulme, published in The Times, March 18 2005.  Quote taken from Nerlich and Halliday.
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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Posted in Essays

Tagged with ,

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