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Flying low

Medicine | Eighteen months after bird flu hysteria, preparedness meansures garner little attention

Issue: "Is Romney rolling?," May 19, 2007

Remember bird flu? When President Bush met with drug companies to push for a bird flu vaccine in October 2005, The Washington Post published a 704-word story on Page 3 of the newspaper. But last month, after the FDA announced it had approved the vaccine for H5N1 avian influenza, the story garnered only a 150-word news brief on Page 9.

The facts about H5N1 are the same now as they were 18 months ago. The disease kills about half of the people it infects, but humans can only catch it from close contact with sick poultry. The rate of human infection is not decreasing, according to the World Health Organization. But the passing of time, combined with what scientists now know about H5N1, has reduced the credibility of bird flu as a candidate for fourth horseman of the apocalypse.

Part of what made H5N1 so famous had little to do with the virus itself. In October 2005, scientists had decoded a similar virus that caused a major pandemic in 1918, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had just caused public-health mayhem. Journalists everywhere were asking what the government was doing to prevent similar disasters.

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The answer was a pandemic preparedness plan released by the Department of Health and Human Services in November 2005. Much of the plan, including the production of a vaccine, has been implemented.

Though H5N1 has an alarmingly high death rate in humans, research released in March explains why it does not pass easily between people. The virus settles deep in the lungs, according to WHO, making it difficult for infection to escape the body when people cough and sneeze. To reach pandemic proportions, any strain of flu has to be highly contagious. Historically, a flu pandemic strikes about every 50 years.

"Experts at WHO and elsewhere believe that the world is now closer to another influenza pandemic than at any time since 1968, when the last of the previous century's three pandemics occurred," WHO states on its current pandemic alert website. But how close and how deadly the pandemic will be is anybody's guess.

Making the Rounds

GENETICS: The U.S. House of Representatives on April 25 passed a bill that would bar employers and insurance companies from discriminating against people based on the results of genetic testing. Sponsor Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) cited historic examples such as the denial of insurance coverage to African-Americans who carried the gene for sickle cell anemia in the 1970s. "For years," Slaughter said, "we've held up genetic research because people were afraid that their genetic information would be used against them."

CANCER: New research suggests that doctors saved women's lives by curtailing the use of hormone replacement therapy in 2003. An analysis of data from the National Cancer Institute showed that the breast cancer incidence rate in the United States fell 6.7 percent that year after a highly publicized study linking cancer and HRT in women. The number of prescriptions for the two most common HRT medicines, used to treat the symptoms of menopause, fell by 67 percent from 2001 to 2004.

NUTRITION: A new report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine urges schools to limit vending machine snacks. Since 2002, the independent agency has advised Congress on ways to solve the country's growing problem of childhood obesity. The proposed rules would allow only foods that provide at least one serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or low-fat dairy products. They would get rid of caffeine, trans fats, and anything with more than 200 calories.

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