Bird Flu: Worried But Not Doing Enough

Uncertainty, rapid change and complexity are the hallmarks of the twenty-first century. Nothing is more symbolic of these new dynamics than bird flu. Over the past year there has been a rising crescendo of concern about the possibility it might mutate into a dangerous human virus, though scientists have been aware of its potential global impacts for at least a decade.

The World Today Published 1 December 2005 Updated 15 October 2020 4 minute READ

Randolph Kent

Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Defence Studies, King's College London

In March the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine confirmed that a bird flu pandemic could be ‘unprecedented in its scale, in its spread, and in the economic losses’. It might even exceed the estimated fifty million human deaths from the 1919 Spanish influenza, but the international response so far is incoherent.

The potential death toll, though grim, is only one dimension of the threat of bird flu. If the H5N1 virus crossed from birds to humans, the political, economic and social consequences could spill into all aspects of life. In a desperate attempt to be seen to be doing something, governments might well impose useless but highly disruptive quarantines, or close borders and airports for months. This would disrupt trade, travel, productivity and world stock markets. The disease would be likely to affect global security, reducing troop strength for all armed forces, UN peacekeeping operations and police.

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