I got this SMS on my phone today, it reads:
“It is safe to eat properly cooked chicken meat and fully boiled or fried eggs even under bird flu situation – Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock”.
There is actually a concerted media effort, on the part of the government here in Bangladesh, to try and reduce the hysteria regarding eating eggs and egg products. I was also listening to Bangla-language radio earlier tonight and the DJ – in between songs – was quizzing people about which temperature people need to cook eggs in order for them to be safe enough to eat. He then gave a number where listeners could SMS their responses. I think there was a prize for a random person who got the answer right.
So what exactly is the bird flu? If anyone has ever lived in a dormitory, you know that when someone gets the flu – eventually everyone gets the flu. The bird flu is kind of like that – it is a very easy to catch and can infect both birds and human beings. The problem is that, unlike the kind of flu that you can easily recover from with some rest, the bird flu can be deadly. In fact, there is a particular strain called the H5N1 virus which is both very contagious and very deadly.
Why is bird flu a threat? Given how contagious and deadly H5N1 can be, many scientists believe that the next global pandemic will be caused by Avian Bird Flu. A global pandemic might be hard to imagine – because it has never happened in our generation. But it has happened quite frequently throughout human history. There was the Black Death caused by the Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages, “the consumption” (aka tuberculosis) a few generations back, and the Polio Epidemics of the early 1900s.
Why don’t have a pandemic already? The reason we are safe for now is because germs take time to mutate. If you’ve ever wondered why, despite medical technology, we can’t cure the common cold – it’s because the cold virus keeps mutating. You might catch a cold several times during your life – but you probably have never been infected by the exact same virus twice. We have the advantage right now because, even though people can get sick from bird flu, they cannot pass it onto others. It’s not contagious between humans – only between birds and humans.
Why should you care? Bird flu was actually one of the topics that Dr. Sachs talked about during the Notre Dame Forum on Global Health. I talked about it as well – and included some clips from Dr. Sachs – in my video about Super Tuesday. Diseases don’t need passports. They can come into any country - anywhere in the world. That’s especially true with a disease like bird flu – it can be brought into a country by migratory birds even if a country decides to seal its borders. The threat from Bird Flu dwarfs the threat from terrorism.
What does poverty have to do with this? Even though Bird Flu exists in North America, it is most likely that any Bird Flu pandemic would start here in Bangladesh. Why? Because, unlike North America – there isn’t that big a seperation between the urban and the agricultural. The eggs you buy from the supermarket were probably laid by a chicken over a hundred miles (or a thousand miles) away. In Dhaka, when you buy eggs – you can often see the chicken that it came from. People are in much closer contact to poultry and Bird Flu carrying animals than in North America.
People also have less access to health care. In order to avoid costly medical and clinic fees, most poor people here don’t go to the doctor unless they are on the verge of death. If they get infected with the Bird Flu (which would feel just like any regular flu) they are most likely going to try and tough it out (or try and treat it themselves). The poor are not only the first victims of global health issues – they are often the unfortunate incubators for diseases to mutate and grow.
It’s not just the health care system that is lacking here in the Third World. When a farmer in North America has a batch of birds which have Bird Flu – they can get reimbursed through insurance and/or government subsidies provided through tax dollars. When a poor farmer who has a few chickens and sells eggs is ordered to kill his birds due to the flu – he has no safety net: he’s out of business. And it’s usually the poor farmers that are at greater risk because they can’t afford all the equipment needed to keep things sanitary and clean.
It’s such a shame that, in a world where the rich countries are often pro-active in trying to eliminate potential threats from terrorism, we don’t often pay enough attention to equally important (or more dangerous) threats to our safety and security. I’m still waiting for a President to say “we have to fight bird flu over there, so we don’t have to fight bird flu over here”.