Birds of mass destruction: Bush’s fear card

by Brian Clarey

In July 2005 The New York Times ran a short, 125-word brief about a possible avian influenza epidemic originating in Asia and that had thus far claimed the lives of 50 people. A doctor from the World Health Organization warned that if steps were not soon taken to curb the spread of disease, ‘“things will get out of hand.’”

The paper’s coverage reached an apogee this past October, and by Halloween the venerable Times had made mention of the phrase ‘avian flu’ in no fewer than 58 stories that ran in their pages and website that month.

The Bush machine didn’t aggressively jump on the scare until Nov. 1, when in an address to the National Institutes of Health he unveiled his 381-page manifesto entitled: The Pandemic Influenza Strategic Plan.

Nov. 1, by the way, was just after the Harriet Miers fiasco and coincides roughly with the nomination of Alito for the Supreme Court, the 2,000th American casualty in Iraq and high heat for the administration after the Valerie Plame investigation.

This confluence of events leads us at YES! Weekly to conclude that the avian flu scare is a bunch of crap.

This is an administration that has been more than willing to play the fear card whenever things look grim for it and the Republican Party. They did it in 2002, before the midterm elections, playing into fears of terrorism after 9-11 to gain gubernatorial seats they had lost in 2001. They did it in February 2003 when they raised the terror alert to Code Orange in the months prior to the invasion of Iraq when they were drumming up support for the war. They did it on Aug. 11, 2004, before the presidential election, when nearly 80 percent of Medicare recipients approved of John Kerry’s stance for easy access to Canadian drugs ‘— in an unsubstantiated claim, acting FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford announced that clues from intercepted terrorist ‘“chatter’” foretold a plot by al Qaeda to contaminate prescription drugs imported to the United States.

Odd coincidence? Perhaps.

And perhaps the bird flu threat is a real one. But the American public can only hear the boy cry ‘wolf’ so many times.

And consider this: there is nothing new about the avian flu.

A search of the New York Times archive dating back to 1981 reveals thousands of stories containing the phrase ‘“avian flu’” dating back to December 1983 when an epidemic had infected chickens in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland ‘— right here on US soil, unlike the current outbreak.

Another rash of cases brought a few pieces in 1986.

In 1997 a strain of avian flu spread to humans ‘— four of them (gasp!). Two of them died, which admittedly is a pretty high fatality rate but, y’know’… more people worldwide die each year in piano-related accidents than that.

The 1997 bird flu was a nasty one, but it disappeared from the Times coverage in 1998 and the disease wasn’t reported on again with any regularity until August 2004. Then the story went cold until, you guessed it, October 2005, when the president began flogging the horse.

And while it’s true that a search of the Times archive does not alone constitute proof that the avian flu is a bunch of crap, this quote on Nov. 9 from Daniel Perez, an assistant professor at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, sheds some light on the situation. He said: ‘“We are very unlikely to get an avian flu strain that is infectious to humans. The chances of getting hit by avian influenza from wild birds is the same as getting hit by a lightning bolt.’”