Health Politics: Who benefits from bird flu pandemonium?

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Last week members of a health reporters discussion group I belong to were asked to provide input for a workshop on how the news media should prepare for the purported bird flu pandemic. The program was sponsored by a state Homeland Security department and the local AP bureau.

Another alarmed member called for creation of “a journalists’ pandemic task force” and suggested that if the association wasn’t ready to get behind this idea, he’d set up regular conference calls to make sure others were prepared for the impending crisis.

Covering the avian flu, or H5N1, has been dominating the thoughts of many health and science writers for months. Alarming headlines and fear inspiring claims are becoming increasingly common on Web sites and TV and in newspapers. Some examples:

 WHO Says Bird Flu Virus Mutated” (Reading the article, you find that the it’s a dead-end story in Indonesia, coinciding with that government’s wish for $900 million in funding for bird flu preparedness, AP: 6/22/06).

“ZAMBIA: Fear of bird flu panics Zambians” (The article describes fear but no real evidence of H5N1, IRIN: 6/23/06)

Bird flu is a serious threat, says county health chief” (Orange County Health Commissioner claims, “We’re 40 years overdue for pandemic. There were three major pandemics in the last century. We’re overdue. If it does, people will get sick, people will die and there is a good chance the economy will tank.” Hudson Valley News: 6/22/06)

Bird flu could reach Alaska in weeks” (Three months ago MarketWatch wrote: “U.S. government officials monitoring the spread of avian influenza are expecting the first case to reach Alaska in about three weeks and to hit the West Coast by autumn, Prudential Equity Group said Wednesday.” MarketWatch: 3/29/06)

Bird Flu Could Close Military Cemeteries” (Oh dear. Was this really necessary? Catchy lead though: “Taps could be silenced for veterans who die during a bird flu outbreak.” AP: 6/20/06)

Are you starting to see the pattern?

Who Benefits? Donald Rumsfeld

The media is already doing a very thorough job of describing the potential threat from every conceivable angle, but they leave out a very important part of the story.

As I suggested to the Star tribune ombudsman several months ago, is it being cynical to ask journalists to disclose who benefits from the avian flu scare and ask them to be a bit skeptical of the continuing push for coverage of the potential avian flu pandemic, particularly by the Bush Administration? This Administration has routinely used fear to keep people focused on minor or manufactured threats as a diversion from other crises it has created.

I’ve run across only a few news stories detailing who benefits from the growing concern over the as-yet hypothetical pandemic. One of the largest beneficiaries of the avian flu scare is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose personal stock in the company that created Tamiflu (and which he led as CEO before becoming head of the DoD), has yielded in excess of $5 million as more than 61 governments have stockpiled the drug.

The more fear inspired by media stories, the better the sales have been for GlaxoSmithKline, Roche and smaller start-up pharmas now receiving billions in government funds for vaccine research, development and sales of some very dubious drugs, including Tamiflu, that have been purchased for U.S. and foreign government stockpiles.

By stockpiling drugs and other items to combat what is still considered a long-shot, the government is knowingly diverting billions away from known and preventable health threats. More than 45 million Americans are uninsured and another 14 million are woefully underinsured. People are dying needlessly from stroke, cancer and other diseases that could have been diagnosed early and treated successfully if we had a national health care program that worked for us, instead of for the so-called “free market.” Is it really free if taxpayers are feeding it?

Programs to address known global health problems such as malnourished children, HIV/AIDs, diseases caused by environmental pollution and other preventable or curable diseases are losing precious resources as money is diverted to avian flu pandemic stockpiling, conferences, archaic research, dubious vaccines and cures, and global surveillance of migratory birds.

These are the facts:

  • There are at least 15 different types of avian influenza that routinely infect birds around the world.
  • Avian flu/H5N1 is a virus strain that is found in birds kept in badly maintained poultries.
  • Over the past eight years since the H5N1 virus was first detected in poultry, the World Health Organization has reported 130 deaths due to H5N1 in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.
  • The avian flu has not mutated to humans.

Journalists are falling short

Journalists should be asking themselves if they haven’t been a tad overzealous. Could the news media provide a better public service by providing the full picture instead of feeding the pandemic of fear?

The avian flu scare has created enthusiastic markets not just for pharmaceutical companies. All sorts of entrepreneurs — from conference organizers, to research analysts (including those studying why the media isn’t doing more), to face-masks manufacturers — are cashing in.

A new beak-like face mask is one of several now available for sale directly to the public. At $10.99, the Nano Mask comes in five bright colors. Currently, the mask is not yet made in child size, although children are considered the most at risk as well as the greatest culprits in spreading influenza.

And then there’s the Flu Infection Protection Family Kit. The LifeSecure company offers suggestions on treating yourself should the pandemic strike suddenly and overfill hospitals.

Even Lysol, “the germ experts” has gotten into the act.

I would not deign to criticize well-meaning entrepreneurs for stepping up to the plate when the opportunity has been created for them to do just that.

And it is responsible for the news media to share concrete news with the public about the relatively few cases of H5N1 that have occurred. But the media must not itself fall prey to government supported market propaganda.

Remember the 1975 swine flu scare? One individual died and soon millions were inoculated with an unsafe vaccine that caused Guillan-Barré, a life threatening neurological disorder, in 500 unknowing guinea pigs that received the shots. Earlier this year the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases began a clinical trial of an H5N1 vaccine, created through reverse genesis by Sanofi Pasteur and Chiron, on American children, ages 2 through 9. Clinical trials of the H5N1 vaccine on healthy adults and adults over age 65 are ongoing.

Along with earmarking more than $9.4 billion over the last couple years for President Bush’s bird flu strategy, Congress passed protection against lawsuits for pharmaceutical companies developing and distributing new vaccines. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for those kids and their families because if something goes wrong, there will be little recourse. 

At minimum, the media, particularly health and science reporters who should know better, are irresponsible in not limiting their news to facts and by not disclosing those who are benefiting from the growing buzz about avian flu.


Kathy Stone is a St. Paul-based writer who has covered the business of health care, health policy, and science and consumer health news for nearly two decades. Her bi-weekly column, Health Politics, will comment on health care trends and their impact on real people. Send us ideas for health topics that you’d like Kathy to cover at health@tcdailyplanet.net.

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