Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Bird flu prophets of doom spread nothing but needless alarm
Health officials seem to be motivated by being seen to do something rather than producing sensible health policies

Officialdom appears to be in the business of transmitting scare stories to the British public. Politicians and officials take the view that if they warn us to be afraid about some impending catastrophe they will protect themselves from the accusation of irresponsibility.

They are continually telling us that it is a matter of 'when and not if' the next major disaster will occur. However when it comes to irresponsible doom-mongering the scary scenarios that are projected about the coming flu pandemic are in a class of their own.

The Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson has warned that a British bird flu pandemic was inevitable and that it will kill 50,000 people. He qualified his statement by stating that although this calamity was inevitable it was unlikely to happen this winter.

So what is the purpose of this statement? Why scare the public about the inevitability of at least 50,000 deaths when it is unlikely to happen in the near future? Is it responsible to issue alarmist accounts of millions of people being killed when there have been only 117 confirmed cases of the disease worldwide of which 60 people have died? Sir Liam's warning that sooner or later the flu virus will mutate into a form that can be readily transmitted from one person to another is based on speculation.

It may happen but until now, scientific consensus was based on the assumption that the present strain of bird flu virus does not easily transmit from human to human.

It is not clear to me why we only get alarmist warnings about avian flu. Is it not reassuring that there are only 117 confirmed cases of this diseases? Perhaps it suggests that this diseases is not as infectious as we fear otherwise there would be far larger numbers of deaths in a densely populated country like China.

Moreover, unlike Asian peasants who regularly come in contact with chicken, most Europeans only see one in the supermarket. So the chances of infection for an urban dweller is significantly smaller than for someone living in a village.

It needs to be emphasised that at present no pandemic exits. It is by no means certain that a pandemic of bird flu will occur in our lifetime. Constant references to the deathly flu pandemic of 1918 are somehow meant to scare us in 2005. But if we step back and reflect on human experience it becomes evident that such global catastrophes are fortunately very rare.

Tragically what we are faced with today is not so much a pandemic of a deathly virus but a pandemic of fear. Sir Liam knows that when he says that a flu pandemic is inevitable he will never be proved wrong. Such an unspecific warning about the risk of an avian flu that can mutate so it can spread easily between humans could have been made by chief medical officers in 1919 or 1920 or at any time since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Sir Liam's predecessors usually had the good sense not to issue such general warnings about a catastrophe that may or may not happen.

Sir Liam's communication is inspired by the imperative of appearing to be doing something to solve a problem. It appears that issuing warnings has become an alternative to sensible public health policies.

Take the Department of Health's leaflet 'Pandemic Flu: Important Information for You and Your Family'. The leaflet tells us that 'scientists predict that another pandemic will happen, although they cannot say exactly when that will be'.

Thanks very much for this useful bit of information. Why such an unspecific statement about the future is 'important information' for our family is far from evident. However, one point is clear. Asking people to be vigilant and cautious about as-yet non-existent pandemic can only create a climate of fear. As public health officials ought to know, the communication of a diffuse sense of danger about which little can be done can only provoke a sense of public anxiety and disorientation. That is why Sir Liam's statement is so irresponsible.

Sir Liam's warning appears positively restrained compared to the foolish doom mongering of Dr David Nabarro, the UN health official charged with co-ordinating national responses to the pandemic. 'It is like a combination of global warming and HIV Aids' noted Nabarro before predicting that up to 150 million people could be killed by it. Even the World Health Organisation was appalled by this statement. Dick Thompson, its spokesman on influenza claimed that the numbers of casualties would be between 2 million and 7.4 million. 'I don't think you will hear Dr Nabarro say the same sort of thing again,' noted Thompson. Perhaps. But the numbers game played by competing health official serves simply to inflate the public's anxiety further.

One more point. What most people will gather from Sir Liam's communication is that 50,000 people will die. That is at first sight a very large number of people. However to keep a sense of proportion we need to remember that the Department of Health estimates around 12,500 excess deaths attributable to ordinary flu per year. And that is in a non-epidemic year.

It is estimated that during the 1989-90 epidemic around 30,000 people died from the flu. Not quite 50,000 - but near enough. Every single death is a personal tragedy. Which is why we can do without additional doom mongering. The fact that we were spared of all the current morbid apocalyptic warning meant that in 1989-90 we could deal with our losses with dignity and then get on with our lives.

Is it any surprise that doctors' surgeries have been inundated by anxious phone calls?

An already overstretched NHS does not need to be distracted from meeting needs of people who are ill in the here and now. If public health officials like Sir Liam want to do some good they can focus their energy on curing the ill and helping the rest of us stay healthy. Instead of fearing the inevitable, we could all get on with our lives.

First published in the Daily Express, 18 October 2005