Avian flu still a danger, CDC official tells fellows

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

This is a guest post from Marshall Allen of the Las Vegas Sun. Allen is among the first class of AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows who are spending the week studying public health issues at two Atlanta campuses of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Marshall Allen (right), a Las Vegas Sun reporter, speaks to Grant Baldwin, Ph.D., director of the CDC’s Injury Center, about interpreting child safety data for localizing stories. (Photo: Christy Stretz)

Marshall Allen (right), a Las Vegas Sun reporter, speaks to Grant Baldwin, Ph.D., director of the CDC’s Injury Center, about interpreting child safety data for localizing stories. (Photo: Christy Stretz)

Media furor over avian influenza, also known as bird flu, has died down in recent years, but that’s more a reflection on the news cycle than the actual threat posed by the disease, according to a CDC expert.

That’s the assessment of Dr. Scott Dowell of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s global disease detection program. Dowell spoke Wednesday to a group of 11 AHCJ-CDC fellows, who are in Atlanta to learn about the federal agency’s programs around the world.

Dowell said there is less anxiety about bird flu, also known as H5N1, than there was in the early days of the outbreak, but it still remains a danger. Since 2003, the disease has infected nearly 400 people in more than a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Europe and the Near East.

Lorna Benson of Minnesota Public Radio (right), asks Scott Dowell, M.D., M.P.H., Global Disease Detection Program, how villages react to CDC members arriving in response to health crisis, such as cholera outbreaks. (Photo: Christy Stretz)

Lorna Benson of Minnesota Public Radio (right), asks Dowell how villages react to CDC members arriving in response to a health crisis. (Photo: Christy Stretz)

“We assess these threats on a daily basis and H5N1 is still at the top of the list, the single most dangerous pathogen on the face of the earth because it has a mortality of 60 percent,” Dowell said. In comparison, the mortality rate for normal influenza is far less than 1 percent.

There was worldwide panic and intense media coverage when the first cases arose because it was unknown how easily bird flu could be transmitted from person-to-person, Dowell said. It is still believed the disease can be passed from one person to another, but it’s “totally unpredictable” when that would happen, he said.

It’s impossible to say why bird flu has not been more efficiently transmitted among people, he said.

“The fact that it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t give us any reason scientifically to expect that it won’t happen,” Dowell said. Countries are better prepared now to contain a small avian influenza cluster, but the world is nowhere near handling H5N1 if it suddenly acquired the ability to spread rapidly among people.

Dowell said he understands that the media cannot continue reporting in earnest on the possibility of an outbreak, but it remains a primary concern from a public health standpoint.

More information for reporters

The Next Big (Health) Crisis – And How to Cover It
AHCJ cosponsored a 2006 conference at the Nieman Foundation about news coverage of the next big health crisis, with a focus on the emergence of the next influenza pandemic. Read edited transcripts from the conference:

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