It seems like just yesterday the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization was saying that the current resurgence of bird flu is not as bad as last year when it burst out of Asia and extended itself into 40 countries or so. It wasn’t yesterday. It was Monday. Enough time for that judgment to look a wee bit premature.
In fairness, FAO cautioned everyone not to let down their guard. Good advice, especially as the first poultry outbreak in Europe this season has now been confirmed in Hungary and the virus has returned to Japan for the first time in three years. We aren’t even mentioning China and Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria, Egypt, and of course, we can’t forget Indonesia, the current epicenter of bird flu. Those are the places we know about. There is undoubtedly virus elsewhere, unreported or undetected.
But it’s hard to make sense out of scattered reports that seem to arrive one on top of the other. I was thinking of this yesterday when my news aggregator, NewsNow (the service I use to alert me to bird flu related articles in the press), presented me with this surprising headline: Vietnam bird flu cases limited so far. Three deaths, seven confirmed, possible human infections. Fortunately I now know enough to check the date, and in this case it was August 16, 2004. Why NewsNow coughs up these old articles I don’t know, but it happens pretty often. In this case it was also instructive.
Vietnam has detected seven confirmed and possible bird flu infections in humans so far, but is concerned about more cases cropping up among its scattered small farms, a health ministry official said on Monday.
Three of the victims in those cases, two children among them, died of bird flu, the government announced last week.
The third, a 25-year-old woman from the southern province of Hau Giang, has been preliminarily identified as infected with H5N1, the same strain of bird flu that killed 24 people in Asia this year, including 16 in Vietnam and eight in Thailand.
WHO Vietnam representative Hans Troedsson said the situation did not appear alarming for now. “So far, it’s only a limited number,” he told Reuters. “For the moment it doesn?t look to be the same dimension as in February.”
“The characteristics of this disease are difficult to deal with. We have some localities where the disease has not been fully treated, so the virus still exists,” Bui Quang Anh, director of the animal health department of the agriculture ministry, told reporters on Monday.
The latest recurrence was on a smaller scale than the initial outbreak earlier this year, he added. (MSNBC)
No one can accuse the Vietnamese of complacency. They sound appropriately worried. Already they had human cases and flu season has barely started. The Vietnamese were just coming off the first year of the resurgence which started in 2003 when Vietnam had more human cases than any other country (they still are number one, although Indonesia has the most deaths and is rapidly approaching Vietnam on the number of cases, too). At this point they couldn’t see the future. But we know what the future held for them and it wasn’t pretty.
Here is the temporal distribution of case counts up to the point of this article, August 2004. Of the seven confirmed or suspected reported above, five were later counted as confirmed by WHO. The bars are color coded by country and Vietnam is vermillion (I think; I’m color blind):
Unfortunately the hope that the 2004 – 2005 season in Vietnam would not be as bad as the initial 2003- 2004 season was unfounded. The ensuing months would bring 72 more cases:
Not all surprises are bad (at least for Vietnam), because here is what happened in the next year (2005 – 2006):
Vietnam’s color has been replaced by Indonesia (yellow) and a bunch of others.
Knowing what’s going to happen as we head into flu season isn’t easy and I frankly have no idea. Best not to make guesses but instead get ready for whatever it might bring.
I think I’ve said that before.