Monday, December 19, 2005

News - Expert says avian flu scare is a money bonanza for researchers

Do you remember the flu epidemic/pandemic that never was? It was the 1976 scare after a soldier at Fort Dix, NJ, contracted and died from swine flu, which led to the Ford administration, with the help of Congress, to launch a crash program to make a vaccine and inoculate 220 million Americans.

Never ones to pass up a buck or shell one out if they could avoid it, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries demanded the federal government assume all risk for any harm to people the vaccine might cause. Congress yielded.

By October of that year, the vaccine was ready and people lined up for shots.

About 40 million people received the vaccine before the program was halted in December 1976, after some 1,000 came down with Guillain-Barre syndrome (a rate seven times normal), a disease that can cause permanent paralysis, others contracted transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder, a reports of death associated with the vaccine range from 30-60. The government paid some $90 million in damages and the cost of the program was about $400 (both in 1976 dollars).

The difference between making a vaccine in 1976 and the current rush to create an avian flu vaccine is that in 1976 they knew what strain of flu the vaccine was supposed to prevent.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the fear card is being played over the possibility of an avian flu pandemic, the likelihood of which Dr. Gary Butcher of the University of Florida say is practically nil. Below is an article from Sunday's Star-Banner, Ocala, FL, in which Dr. Butcher claims the fear-mongering has more to do with money than likely danger to the public.

Ruffled feathers
UF professor says bird flu is not a threat in the U.S.

CATHERINE DOLINSKI
STAR-BANNER
Published Dec. 18, 2005

GAINESVILLE -- Researchers and health agencies continue to sound the alarm about avian flu, and Dr. Gary Butcher, an expert on poultry medicine and disease at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine thinks he knows why.

"The agenda here is pretty obvious," he said. "People want grant money. This is a bonanza."

Butcher, who advises agricultural ministries and poultry companies around the world, is Florida's lone poultry veterinarian. He has also emerged as a leading naysayer on the prospects for a avian flu pandemic.

Butcher insists the likelihood that the H5N1 avian flu virus in Asia will trigger a pandemic is practically nil. But the fear-mongering will continue, he said, as long as people see a potential for financial and career gain in it.

He believes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is overstating the threat posed by avian flu to justify its budget, and to a large extent, its existence. The World Health Organization, he said, has issued its warnings for similar reasons.

"They're under intense pressure," he said of the WHO. "They've had so many problems in the past, problems with internal corruption. . . . They're in dire need of new funding and this is their golden goose, as long as they can keep it going."

Butcher knows his words sound harsh, he said, but there is a war on.

"This is a full-on war against agriculture," Butcher said -- and he is firing back.

BUTCHER'S BEEF

Historically, pandemics have tended to recur every 20 to 40 years. The last occurred in 1968. The Hong Kong Flu caused between 750,000 and 2 million deaths worldwide, about 34,000 of those deaths were in the United States.

In November, President Bush asked Congress for $7.1 billion to prepare for the next pandemic flu, pointing to the H5N1 virus that numerous health experts have identified as a potential pandemic threat.

Butcher does not doubt the world is in for another pandemic, he said. But the constant hum of warnings in this country about the avian flu irks him -- especially since influenza has long infected about 30 percent of the native wild duck population when it migrates annually to Canada. As the weather turns cold, the birds migrate south through the United States.

"This occurs every year," Butcher said. "We very, very rarely have infections spread to commercial poultry."

The H5N1 virus is a much more serious strain, he said, but it poses no greater threat of human infection.

"The threat is basically zero," he said. "We're spending all of our attention on this [virus], and another one may sneak up on us."

Realistically, no one knows what is going to happen, said Dr. Sherrill Davison, director of the avian medicine and pathology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. "We're having, in the poultry industry, differences of opinion about the risks we're seeing."

H5N1 is highly pathogenic, she said, which is unusual. Davison believes that is cause for concern and preparation, but not panic.

"We get a fair amount of calls from people very concerned, even panicked," she said. "I tell them it's not in the United States, and that we have a policy in the United States that, if we did have something similar to it, the birds would be euthanized and not enter the food chain."

Even if the virus did penetrate the food supply, she said, cooking it would kill it anyway.

CONFLICTS?

Cooking guidelines appear on the World Health Organization's list of safeguards against avian flu infection. Released Dec. 5, the recommendations include not eating raw poultry and washing one's hands after handling raw bird parts.

The guidelines are accurate, Butcher said, but have little to do with avian flu.

"There's nothing new here," he said, explaining that every recommendation is a long-standing general safety guideline for handling poultry. Linking them to the flu, he said, is inappropriately suggestive.

The WHO's Web site also warns that the H5N1 avian flu has killed half of the people it has infected. That's true, Butcher said, but given the fact that the virus has only infected roughly 130 people, that 50 percent statistic paints a misleading picture.

"The guy who wrote this really wants to make this sound like a big thing," Butcher said, reading through the WHO's "frequently asked questions" about avian flu.

"Dr. Butcher is certainly entitled to his opinion," WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said in an e-mailed response. "We clearly do not share it."

H5N1 has fulfilled two of three scientific criteria for a pandemic virus, Cheng said. All that is left, she said, is for it to transmit easily between people.

She acknowledged that speaking openly about a possible bird flu pandemic can incite fear, but said it is the WHO's responsibility to warn about the risks.

As for the safety guidelines, she said, the WHO has been deluged by requests for practical advice on minimizing the risk of infection.

"There are many uncertainties about the situation, which the WHO has tried to explain," she said. "We do not know if H5N1 will spark the next pandemic. We know only that, scientifically, it looks to be the most likely candidate."

Butcher disagrees. The H5N1 virus kills the birds it infects, he said, which denies it the opportunity to mutate into something easily transmissible among humans. And because the U.S. poultry industry keeps its birds indoors, he said, they are highly unlikely to contract the virus from infected migratory birds.

The veterinarian reserved some of his harshest criticism for the USDA, which he believes is overstating the threat to justify its intensifying bird surveillance programs and gain funding and influence.

"They're trying to keep [avian flu] in the spotlight," he said.

"Everyone's keeping it in the spotlight," said Madelaine Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service division of the USDA.

Fletcher declined to respond to Butcher's accusations about the agency's agenda. "We've tried to keep biosecurity and sick birds in the spotlight so people know what to look for, but that's because our mission is to keep these [viruses] out of the country."

Butcher's perspective is not only that of an academic expert, but that of an industry consultant. When he is not teaching and researching in Gainesville, Butcher often travels to Panama, Russia, Ecuador, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries, advising governments and poultry companies whose survival and profits are threatened by public fears of bird flu.

In his travels, he said, he sees the evidence of serious economic harm caused by misplaced fear. "Poultry consumption is down 50 percent in Europe," he said. "It's a disaster."

From a health standpoint, however, fear of the bird flu has its benefits, said Dr. Nathan Grossman, director of the Marion County Health Department. The result has been increasing preparations at all government levels for some form of pandemic.

"I realize people have the impression we're preparing because the bird flu is coming," Grossman said. "That's a misconception. . . . It happens to be the novel virus that has sparked people to it."

But Butcher remains troubled. "I don't think people understand the effect it's had on economies, industries and even the mental health of people around the world," he said. "It's prudent to be prepared, but it's not prudent to inspire this overreaction."

University of Florida poultry expert says avian flu scare is a money bonanza for researchers

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