The Real Health Risk

 Avian flu is for this year what SARS was for the last. Media outlets across the nation beat each other in ever more sensational findings, additional infections, and projected casualties in the millions if the flu strain should mutate into a virus transmittable between humans.

So, what are the facts?

Large migratory bird flocks in China are showing symptoms. Reportedly, over 100 million domestic birds had to be slaughtered in China and South Asia since 2003... with a cumulative $10 billion price tag, in the form of economic and productivity losses. Even the most conservative news providers predict 2 to 7 million casualties--up to 60 million casualties in the most pessimistic journals--and up to 1.2 billion infected, should a pandemic occur.

"At the moment, effective responses to an avian flu pandemic are limited and would come far too late for many people in Southeast Asia," lamented an article in the International Herald Tribune last week, written by Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). "[So] far more than 60 percent of those diagnosed with avian flu have died."

This 60% mortality rate has been all over the news, whereas the fact that we are talking about no more than 53 (in words, fifty-three!) dead people is rarely mentioned in the press. By comparison, that is about the number of deaths reported in Iraq last Monday alone. Two weeks ago, a landmine blast killed 53 people in a bus in Nepal. And every single day, there are more than twice that many fatal car accidents in the U.S.

"In an age when you can board planes in Bangkok or Hong Kong and arrive in Chicago, Indianapolis or New York in hours," warn Obama and Lugar, both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "everyone must face the reality that these exotic killer diseases are not isolated health problems half a world away, but direct and immediate threats to security and prosperity."

Don't forget, though, that currently, avian flu cannot be spread from human to human--so unless South Asian visitors to the U.S. take their (infected) pet chickens onto the plane, the "immediate threat" for Chicagoans or New Yorkers is zero. Zilch.

To evaluate the real severity of the current situation, a look at last year's SARS scare, the not-exactly-but-almost-global pandemic, may be helpful.

SARS affected about 8,400 people, with a death count of 774. The average age of the patients who died was 74. Let's put this in perspective, too. The average life expectancy of a male in most industrialized countries is... you guessed it, 74 years. (Females live on average five years longer.) The elderly often have weakened immune systems, thus catching anything that goes around. That does not mean, however, that the equivalent of the bubonic plague is upon us.

SARS spread quickly; just about every case in the Greater Toronto Area (the only place in North America that even had any significant incidence) could be traced back to one individual who returned from Hong Kong in February 2003. Most fatalities occurred in March. By April, the risks and contagiousness of SARS were understood and systems (such as voluntary quarantine and hygiene discipline) put in place to deal with those infected and those who could be.

Around 51% of Toronto's cases were health care workers. Nevertheless, a health care worker wearing an anti-infection mask had only a 13% chance of catching SARS, even if they were working with SARS-infected patients. Nurses not wearing a mask had a 56% chance of getting SARS.

What was being reported as a looming global crisis was almost entirely preventable by wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings. The chance of any American catching SARS was 1 in 100 million. By contrast, your risk of death due to being hit by machine parts falling off an airplane is ten times higher.

Other popular media health scares don't fare any better.

Your odds of contracting the human version of Mad Cow Disease are 1 in 40 million; statistically, with 1 in 55,597, you're over 700 times more likely to get legally executed.

Your odds of contracting West Nile Virus are not the best, either. An infinitesimal number of those being bitten by mosquitoes develop symptoms of the disease, and relatively few mosquitoes actually carry the virus. Even if you get bitten by one that does, it's not the end of the world: According to the CDC, 80% of people infected with WNV won't show any symptoms; about 20% will experience mild symptoms--fever, headache, body aches--that vanish within a few days. Only 1 in 150 infected persons develops severe neurological illness and potentially lasting nerve damage.

Americans should stop worrying about marginal threats that are being hyped by the media, says 20/20 anchor John Stossel in his book Give Me a Break, and focus on the real hazards to their health. We from WWNK put together some facts for you.

1 in 36 Americans dies through accidental injury, according to the National Safety Council. Your lifetime odds of dying in a household accident that involves a bed, chair or other furniture are 4,745 to 1; stairs and steps score even higher with 2,331 to 1. Drowning in a river or lake: 2,811 to 1. Choking on a foreign object in your respiratory tract: 1,267 to 1. Death by exposure to smoke, fire and flames: 1,179 to 1. Death by accidental poisoning: 212 to 1.

The odds of contracting a terminal illness are even higher: 1 in 23 Americans will have a stroke some day; 1 in 7 is at risk for cancer, and 1 in 5 will develop heart disease.

Our advice, as usual: Stop worrying about avian flu, Mad Cow Disease, and West Nile Virus, and start taking better care of yourself--with a healthy diet, regular exercise, and a positive outlook on life.

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Posted 06-21-2005 10:57 PM by Doug Casey