Patient Zero

Birds fly, so do people.

By Ian Morrison

Bird Flu is everywhere. Nobody has it in Europe or North America, as far as we know, yet everyone is worried about it. Bird flu is the cover story in all our major national magazines. The threat is so severe and imminent that President Bush clearly stated (at the height of his troubles with Harriet and Scooter, no less), “The reporting needs to be not only on the birds that have fallen ill but also on tracing the capacity of the virus to go from bird to person, to person. That’s when it gets dangerous, when it goes bird-person-person.” Well said.

Bird flu is a problem in the bird population. It has not crossed species barriers in great numbers, but of course the fear, worry, and paranoia stems from the extrapolation of the threat that the virus will mutate and infect humans as it has done in a few isolated cases in China and Vietnam.

Birds fly, so the virus has moved, according to the Wall Street Journal: “It is currently being spread across continents along the flyways of birds. It was confined to Southeast Asia until this spring, when birds carried it north to Qinghai Lake in China, and then to Siberia in July, where the north-south flyway meets the east-west flyway, thereby broadening its reach to places like Greece and Turkey, by October.” That’s where I come in.

In early October, we were on a spectacular trip with a bunch of friends on a Gulet (a big fat Turkish sailboat) down the Lycian coast of Turkey from Bodrum to Fethiye (where the Aegean officially meets the Mediterranean). At, the risk of sounding like a shill for the Turkish tourist board, let me say you can rent the boat, (food, drinks, and crew included) for less than $150 per day per person. It must be good, Bill Gates was cruising the same waters at the same time we were, only in a much larger vessel.

On the trip, my brother-in law, Fred was fretting about avian flu. His Canadian investment guru, at one of Canada’s banks, had done a thought piece on the economic impact of the coming pandemic. The thrust of the report was that the economic impact of pandemic would be devastating, and that the safe bet was to hold on to Canadian mining stocks (say what?). Anyway, I was trying to have a nice break and did not particularly want to get lathered up about the bird flu. I was aware of the awful mortality rate among the few humans who have contracted it, I was aware of the spread among birds, and vaguely aware of investments in and difficulties with vaccine production. In the wake of Katrina, I am deeply skeptical that our healthcare system is prepared for pandemic, or much else, for that matter. But, with 45 million uninsured, soaring healthcare costs, and uneven quality, I am not sure that bird flu is the number one healthcare priority.

Then, on our trip home via Istanbul, the lead story in the Istanbul papers was about the culling of sick Turkish chickens in Akbaslar, a village in Bursa Province, because of suspected avian flu.

We flew home via London’s Heathrow and LAX. In the next two weeks, I was in LA, Tucson, New York, Boca Raton, Boston, Palm Springs and San Diego and had been through Denver, Chicago, and Las Vegas airports en route. I managed to avoid floods, hurricanes, pestilence, and No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em along the way. But I had an infected bug bite on my arm, and got treatment in Tucson (antibiotics) and then in Palo Alto (the reaming out of what would have been a boil in Scotland, but is an infected sebaceous gland in America). The ER doctors smirked about Turkey, bug bites, and avian flu, but we reassured each other that I had not been anywhere near the farm where the infected birds were culled. But then, I thought about Wall Bay in Turkey, a magical bay with a semi-submerged ruin of a Roman bath, that I had visited a week before, where coincidentally ducks and humans were in close cohabitation. Fast forward a week to Palm Springs and a fancy resort (where I was speaking) and again ducks and humans in close and profoundly unsanitary co-habitation. In Turkey we call it dirty, in Palm Springs it’s cute.

Then I thought about Gaetan Dugas, the gay French Canadian flight attendant, who was credited with being Patient Zero in the AIDs pandemic, according to Randy Shilts’s excellent book “And the Band Played On”. Gaetan was a gorgeous, promiscuous, frequent flyer who apparently spread the virus through his liaisons in gay nightspots from San Francisco to New York. I am not drawing an exact parallel, here, please understand, but to point out simply that both birds and people fly. If this virus mutates and crosses species, if it is passed through airborne contact or through people and birds being in close proximity, then it will spread like wildfire, as my recent travels attest. Many of the experts and all of the alarmists agree that it is when not if. But, for the moment they are still ifs. As the President says we must be vigilant, in monitoring the transmission patterns, we must invest in public health preparedness, we must invest in vaccine development and production. (It is cruelly ironic that vaccines are produced in chicken eggs). And we probably should have a little bit more separation between the people and the poultry in our fancy hotels.

I am an optimist about these things: bird flu has been around five years or more, and we have not seen huge numbers of deaths in humans, yet. Still, my family is putting together the flu protection kit: masks, water, granola bars, and cash. And quietly I am hoping that AFLAC comes up with bird flu insurance. We need to be prepared, and we are not.

Ian Morrison is an author, consultant and futurist based in Menlo Park, California.