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Date Posted: 17:00 02/03/2005

Human race on the verge of extinction shock

Running Dog pokes a big stick in the eye of panic as the bird flu scare reaches dire depths

IT SEEMS that in the Chinese Year of the Rooster, chickens are at the centre of an unprecedented global crisis that will see the cruel death of millions of harmless human beings. In any case, the H5N1 avian influenza virus is the latest health scare to do the rounds in the international press, and seems to have plunged the United Kingdom in particular into a state of quivering fear.

The Scotsman, for one, says that as many as 50,000 Scots could die in the 'pandemic', with medical experts citing the notoriously inflammatory predictions of the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, preposterous local hacks in the city of Leeds predict that the virus will 'wreak havoc in Yorkshire'. And thus, the plagues of locusts descend on Halifax, and the Four Horsemen drift across the Snake Pass.

During the SARS scare, embattled foreign correspondents reached a level of apprehension not seen since the heights of the Bubonic Plague, and some observers were even predicting that 4.5 billion people would eventually be infected, Running Dog is normally sceptical about deadly infectious diseases. In fact, Running Dog laughs in the face of fear, and pokes a big stick in the ribs of panic.

The crux of the worries is that the bird flu virus will mutate or somehow mate with the common cold to produce some indestructible super-bug that will plunge the earth into a new Dark Age and reduce the survivors to some vicious, Hobbesian state of nature. Running Dog is no virologist, but it seems that the same claims were being made about HIV in the 1980s, when fevered hacks launched waves of panic by suggesting that the virus could somehow be carried by mosquitoes or spread on toilet seats. As the current state of Africa proves, a virus does not have to be spectacularly cunning, or perform a series of terrifying and unstoppable mutations, in order to cause havoc. It also needs to be remembered that there are still 7,500 Chinese deaths from tuberculosis every year, and that a third of the world's population is infected by the TB bacillus.

New viral diseases such as SARS, bird flu or Ebola are customarily accompanied by widespread panic attacks and acts of unreason. In Shanghai, foreign hacks flapped about risibly while anticipating the end of the world and the role they would play in it. Those who were unfortunate enough to have coughed on the street in May 2003 found themselves scooped up in giant nets and enveloped in a miasma of aerosolized Dettol before a infrared sensor settled on the middle of their foreheads and the poor victims cowered, half-expecting a sniper's bullet as their temperatures were read.

While the SARS virus itself hardly justified the hysteria that had accumulated in China's big cities, most people seemed far too eager to believe the worst. As is often the case, the wild rumours spread far more quickly than the virus itself. Conspiracy theorists even attributed the spread of SARS to American or Taiwanese bio-warfare. For others, everything that took place seemed to be accompanied by some sinister undercurrent or other, usually involving the existence of secret facilities packed with the plague-ridden multitudes. Ears were alert to the whirl of sirens and the chiming of bells, to the sneezing and wheezing, and to the whispers of a neighbour who has a neighbour whose son saw a woman being dragged out of bed in the dead of night. These were not rational times.

As an article in the Los Angeles Times reports, the last variant of bird flu to cross the species-barrier, H3N2, hit the United States in 1968 and killed about 36,000, a terrifying figure in itself, but actually comparable to the death rates in an ordinary flu season. The flu pandemic of 1918, which was not related to birds, was exacerbated by the torments of the First World War, with the virus evolving to maximize its survival among soldiers packed closely together in trenches, hospitals or army vehicles, and spreading into a population already laid low by conflict.

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