Neuron Culture

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Avian flu outbreaks in spring 2006, Paris to Georgia. From Declan Butler’s new Google Earth time-series maps.
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Nature reporter Declan Butler, who has done some of best reporting on avian flu and (separately) the use of the internet as a means of communicating science, has updated his superb Google Earth avian flu maps to use Google Earth’s new time series function. The resulting maps are both beautiful and even more informative and striking than before. The dynamics of the flu’s spread are more clear, and the time series highlights the dynamic nature of this virus, particularly the way the flu has reappeared in some places, flaring up again — an important aspect that’s otherwise easy to overlook.

The time-scale feature’s more narrative presentation is a healthy reminder of this virus’s frightening unpredictability. After heavy coverage last year and into this spring, the general press has largely ignored avian flu, and several studies published earlier this year suggesting that the flu appears less likely to jump to humans seemed to move the bird-flu folder off of many news desks.

H5N1 might prove to be a bullet that passed by. But the E-coli/spinach outbreak last week, in which a normally harmless bacterium took what appears to be a new but much nastier form, should remind us that microbial life is unpredictable. The avian flu virus is still moving, still cooking, still changing; we still don’t really understand the variables dictating its transmissibility; and, at least in the U.S., we’ve done far too little to prepare for a nasty outbreak of bird flu or anything else. I fear that, if tested, our vague gestures toward preparation will prove about as effective as the Katrina recovery effort.

It’s be easy to whack the press here for not paying more attention to avian flu. Truth is, as “breaking news,” avian flu’s slow simmer over the past months is a hard sell to editors and readers. After the virus’s explosion in 2005 from Southeast Asia across to Europe, its much quieter movements and variations this year made unwieldy material for compelling mainstream news stories. A writer can sell to editors, and editors to readers, only so many stories that say the virus has popped up somewhere new, experts fear it could become transmissible to humans, etc. If I was to fault the mainstream media on recent avian flu coverage, my main beef would be the lack of attention to the troublesome situation in Indonesia, where a poor governmental response has allowed the virus to keep percolating, creating just the situation that might allow the virus to change into a more transmissible form.

Yet if the avian flu lately is only seldom newsworthy, it remains very much worthy of attention from those in public-health, policy, and science.* Butler’s persistent, insightful reporting — and his gorgeous maps — are a healthy reminder of that.

*There’s a whole ‘nother blog entry — or article, or book — to be written on this problem: That issues of public health — public welfare of any kind, actually — that aren’t in the news these days tend to get short shrift from politicians and policymakers.

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