Bird flu: headline news

A serviceable and knowledgeable article by AP's Maria Cheng, lately of the WHO public information office, has just appeared on the wires. Readers of this site won't find much new, but what is interesting are the headlines. Yes, headlines, in the plural. Here are ten different headlines to the same article:

What Ever Happened To Bird Flu? (Forbes)

After pandemic fear, experts wonder: What happened to bird flu? (Houston Chronicle)

After pandemic panic, experts wonder: What happened to bird flu?(Santa Barbara News-Press)

Despite panic, bird flu pandemic hasn't appeared (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

Experts ponder bird flu's disappearance (Yahoo News)

What Happened to Bird Flu Panic? (Sci-Tech Today)

Whatever became of bird flu pandemic? (Inside Bay Area)

Experts puzzle over halt of bird flu (Myrtle Beach Online)

Bird flu's absence flusters experts (Aberdeen (Scotland) News)

That's not all of them but a good sample. The article itself does address the relative paucity of news about bird flu outbreaks, despite "a steady stream of human cases in Indonesia, the current flu epicenter." This sounds a little like, "Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln," but it does reflect some of the article's content.

Some of the fault here rests with Ms. Cheng. Her lede, which may be all the headline writers read (if that), fairly invites these headlines:

Earlier this year, bird flu panic was in full swing: The French feared for their foie gras, the Swiss locked their chickens indoors, and Americans enlisted prison inmates in Alaska to help spot infected wild birds.

The H5N1 virus -- previously confined to Southeast Asia -- was striking birds in places as diverse as Germany, Egypt, and Nigeria, and a flu pandemic seemed inevitable.

Then the virus went quiet. Except for a steady stream of human cases in Indonesia, the current flu epicenter, the past year's worries about a catastrophic global outbreak largely disappeared.

What happened?

There is mention of fear, but not panic. Much of the fear wasn't about human health but the effects on the poultry industries, which was indeed substantial. The fear was justified. There was certainly concern about a possible pandemic and it is matter of taste if you want to call it fear (a much stronger word). There was no panic about a pandemic we are aware of, after or despite. And it is manifestly untrue that bird flu has disappeared, so there is nothing to "ponder." As for "disappearing," don't we wish.

Reporters don't write their headlines, but for many readers the headline is the story. I'm just calling attention to it, as a matter of interest. I am not so delusional as to think I can do anything about it or that it will change.

What id happen? The story goes on to interview scientists about what they think the status is. The first explanation is that flu is seasonal and a slew of outbreaks might still be on the way.

Part of the explanation may be seasonal. Bird flu tends to be most active in the colder months, as the virus survives longer at low temperatures.

"Many of us are holding our breath to see what happens in the winter," said Dr. Malik Peiris, a microbiology professor at Hong Kong University. "H5N1 spread very rapidly last year," Peiris said. "So the question is, was that a one-off incident?"

Other explanations are discussed, including the role of vaccination in masking outbreaks. So there is little in the story to give one comfort, despite the misleading headlines.

To prove the point, there's this site's headlines:

Bird flu's hibernation may be seasonal (World News)

Yes, it can be done.


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Maria's article set up a couple of straw men, and ignored a real one:

Straw Man One: The notion that "bird flu panic was in full swing" -- not. There have been many cycles of heightened media attention to avian influenza since early 2004, but no episodes which a serious medical reporter would label as "panic."

Straw Man Two: Maria should know better than most reporters that no events early in 2006 made a flu pandemic seem more inevitable than in previous years. Small numbers of outbreaks in new countries did not contribute appreciably to pandemic risk, given the endemic nature of the virus in Indonesia, for instance.

"Real Man" not mentioned in the article: The enormous increase in local, provincial, national, international, business, school, and emergency responder preparedness efforts. More pandemic preparedness work at every level occurred in 2006 than in any previous year.

Just because the media find all that planning and most of those meetings dull -- not as sexy as family clusters, or new countries with sick birds -- doesn't mean the story has gone away. More people are actually trying to do something about Pan Flu -- and reporters don't see that as "panic" OR as especially interesting.

A bit of a disappointing article from a potentially excellent medical reporter.

By Path Forward (not verified) on 11 Dec 2006 #permalink

Lets see.... Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Somalia, Kenya and Nigeria all are reporting bird kills this week I believe. Revere's little pop last week about animal to human diseases is largely being ignored. Hey, it sounds good with a capitlal G. I noted today Revere that the dow surged 20 and change just about the time that this news hit.

It also largely discounted that a 3rd Korean farm with 790,000 chickens and another with 400,000 had to have them put down this week. Sounds endemic to me. Also sounds like the well wishers who knew bird flu was running amok in Turkey at Xmas time last year are in charge of the media. Yep, my sideline email list that pulls down the good and the bad news and sends it along to the list noted last year on EXACTLY the same day that all news relating to bird flu had simply dried up. Then bingo on the day after Xmas the news started rolling out again, all bad. The Indonesian press also has pretty much cut it out of their posts on Antara, Jakarta Post. Its as though it never existed in t heir papers.

Why is this? Very likely because its the tourist season in Indon and no one wants to spoil Xmas for the Aussies and Europeans there and in Thailand. They sure had it ruined by a tsunami though. Are they sandbagging us? as to have a nice holiday for Christians, Jews, Muslims. Back to the comng disaster on the new year.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 11 Dec 2006 #permalink


By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 11 Dec 2006 #permalink

Mary...are there migratory birds in Hawaii other than the snowbirds?

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 11 Dec 2006 #permalink

Call me cynical, but I think the timing and strategic implications of Maria Cheng's move to AP from WHO is not coincidental.

Former WHO mouthpiece writes for the AP news wire, which serves 1,700 U.S. newspapers; 5,000 radio and TV stations; 330 international broadcasters; and 8,500 international subscribers in 121 countries.

Quite a soapbox if you ask me. Will it be used for good? If this article is any indication, I think not.

Cheng is clearly savvy in the H5N1 back story. She is steeped in firsthand experience with the insidious unintended consequences of lazy news editors and headline writers.

I can only conclude that she framed the lead and buried the nut graf (the real story) mindfully.

Hope I'm wrong. It would be good to see her actually do some real reporting on the topic.

I'm not holding my breath though. I think Cheng has been pre-positioned to be a leading voice when TSHTF. Then again, I could be wildly wrong.

As with all things pandemic, time will tell.

MRK, yes, we are apparently a stopover for quite a few migratory birds. I forget what the route is, but I think they are on their way from either asia or australia to Alaska. Not many stop here on the big island, as we haven't that many estuaries or areas of standing water (land is too porous) but more on the older islands like Oahu and Kauai, where the USGS has watches set up on the migratory resting sites to test birds (at least that was the news last winter.) I actually saw a large migratory duck or goose waddling around in my yard afew weeks back. Just there for a couple of hours and then gone. Looked a bit like a Canadian goose, but was definitely NOT a Nene (our local goose), which I have seen on many occasions.

By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 12 Dec 2006 #permalink