Pandemic jitters

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It was refreshing the other day when Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said “no” to the administration request for an extra $7.1 billion for the latest “pandemic.”

“I would vote against it and I would encourage others to vote against it,” Mr. Barton said. Good for him.

Avian flu has been grossly exaggerated and it’s time someone said so. There have been all of 60 deaths, worldwide. The same virus infected 18 people in Hong Kong in 1997. Then, two years ago, there were a handful of cases in both Vietnam (population 83 million) and Thailand (population 66 million). In both countries combined, 20 people, known to have been working with chickens, contracted influenza symptoms. All this is from the New England Journal of Medicine.

Now the government wants to reach into taxpayers’ pockets for billions more to prepare for a flu crisis. It is feared the virus will mutate and become easily transmitted from person to person. But it has shown no sign of doing so over eight years.

Public-health departments annually come up with something to scare us. Remember SARS? That was another huge scare. In the end, 770 people died worldwide. To put that in perspective, about 55 million people die around the world every year, 2.4 million of them in the United States. It is said 1968 was another “pandemic” year; 34, 000 Americans died of flu. But about that many die of flu every year — most of pneumonia.

The flu scares always use the same bogeyman of 1918. Half a million Americans died; and 50 million worldwide. Thanks to World War I, immune systems were compromised and diet was often inadequate. Our immune systems ward off the flu, not the wholesale slaughter of birds, Tamiflu, or the fattening of public health budgets.

After sound public health measures were introduced in the second half of the 19th century, the menace of infectious diseases was reduced. So public health departments have a scare of their own: Budget cuts may be heading their way.

All the talk is of finding a vaccine, or stockpiling one. But there is no evidence flu vaccines work. For the last 25 years, more and more elderly people have been getting flu shots, but the percentage who get flu anyway has stayed the same.

The media plays along for several reasons. They fall for the argument it is better to be safe than sorry. Also, scary headlines sell newspapers. So the press and public health agencies have a shared interest. One wants a bigger slice of the budget and the other wants greater circulation.

As I argue in “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science,” just out, this is an area where investigative journalists go missing in action. In the field of science, they rarely challenge government experts: They are afraid to do so. They have no such fears on national security, intelligence, defense spending and foreign policy. And that’s to the good. Government needs to be challenged at every turn. But why should the National Institutes of Health get a free pass?

The last great “pandemic” public health officials promoted was AIDS in Africa. That began 20 years ago, when at a conference in Bangui, Central African Republic, U.S. and World Health authorities decided HIV tests were so expensive doctors didn’t need them to diagnose AIDS in Africa. Patients with 10 percent weight loss, persistent fever and diarrhea and a cough became AIDS cases by definition.

By 2000, some 25 million Africans were said to have AIDS. This was seen as a threat to U.S. national security. African nations could not provide for their own security; half of those under 15 were destined for an early death; populations were threatened with collapse, and so on. Twenty years later, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s fastest-growing. It has increased by more than 300 million since 1985, or by more than the total population of the United States.

Some pandemic. But the Bush administration fell for that one, too, and came up with $15 billion to combat it.

Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. His book “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science” has just been published by Regnery Publishing.

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