Avian flu is scary, but a little knowledge is dangerous, too.
As a sometime writer of disaster novels, I take a professional interest in tsunamis, earthquakes, asteroid collisions, and plagues. Tyee readers may recall my February 2004 article on Vancouver’s experience with the Spanish flu, and a more recent piece on the magnitude 9 earthquake off Vancouver Island back in 1700.
So of course I followed the early rumbles about avian flu, and a few weeks ago I even started a blog, H5N1, as a means of educating myself about the possibility of a pandemic. So far, however, I have mostly learned that information itself can mutate as rapidly and dangerously as any flu virus.
My blog wasn’t up long before I discovered similar ones, and a host of regular websites. In part this was the result of my own searches, but I found many sites by retracing Google searches that had led others to my own site.
Join the pandemic community
Since the early 1990s, I’ve seen the Internet foster the growth of virtual communities based on some shared interest or profession. Some last for years; others vanish in weeks, often in a flame war. Now, I was joining a community based on something that really didn’t exist yet—a worldwide pandemic.
Like many other Web surfers, I get much of my news online, and when I found avian-flu stories at BBC Online or New Scientist, I’d create links to them on my blog. I noticed that mainstream media are slow to pick up on events that online media pounce on. And of course the papers and TV news can’t deal with complex stories in details, as websites can.
So it wasn’t a surprise to see a gap in the avian-flu coverage. Newspapers and TV might pick up the basics of a story from the World Health Organization. My fellow-bloggers and I, meanwhile, were digging into the details. Find a flu story on Google News, and chances are you’ll find related stories on a hundred sites or more.
What’s more, Google includes more than just the online version of the New York Times or BBC News. Flu stories also appear on government and corporate sites, and one such site is Recombinomics - the expression of a US biotech firm. Its owner, Dr. Henry L. Niman, seems to know a lot about viruses in general and H5N1 in particular, and his site has been reporting some very frightening news.
121 deaths reported
China reported last week that a couple of hundred wild geese had died of avian flu in China’s remote Qinghai province, north of Tibet. Niman didn’t just speculate about the implications. He went to a Chinese-language news source and used Babelfish, an online translation service, to get more about the story.
What he got was not just a couple of hundred dead geese, but a thousand wild birds from five different species. And he obtained reports of 121 human deaths in 18 villages near the site of the bird deaths. Coupled with reports of 200 unusual illnesses, this began to look to Niman like human-to-human transmission of avian flu, with a catastrophic 60 percent case mortality rate.
Niman has been tracking avian flu for months, and he has a lot of credibility. It was indirectly enhanced when Nature, the world’s top science journal, devoted its latest issue to the threat of an avian-flu pandemic. Underscoring the seriousness of the threat, Nature put all its related articles online, at no cost.
Well, what were we, and the rest of the world, to think? Has the pandemic already been under way for the past two weeks or more? The Chinese were saying they had no human cases of avian flu—so what were those 121 deaths about?
Lost in translation
Compounding the confusion, Niman’s Babelfish translations might have come from the latest Chinese edition of Nostradamus:
Yongfeng infects 6 people, died 8 people,
The red mountain infects 9 people, died 6 people,
East the fruit to infect 9 people, died 12 people,
Upstream infects 3 people, died 11 people,
The storehouse blue infects 3 people, died 12 people
Having seen some of my own website text translated into very odd Spanish, I can well believe that Chinese is beyond the powers of Babelfish. It becomes tempting to read significance into such a text precisely because its meaning is so unclear.
Those of us blogging the pandemic may believe that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A little more knowledge may not even be knowledge at all. Are we well ahead of the mainstream media, like the bloggers who demolished Dan Rather? Or are we drinking one another’s proverbial bathwater, passing along rumors and then deciding, when they come back to us again, that they must be true?
The culture of the blogosphere gives more credence to what is blogged than what is printed or broadcast. If the Chinese media are denying human cases of avian flu, bloggers suspect they must be lying as they did with SARS. If BBC and New Scientist are just reporting the official Chinese statement, then they’re missing a huge story and we clever bloggers are scooping them.
This seems to me a very dangerous attitude. The Internet is the happy hunting ground for every liar on the planet, and not just the ones in government. Most of our spam consists of lies about becoming rich. No doubt some people plan to get truly rich off anxiety about avian flu, just as they did about SARS. Even if no one in China is sick right now, people elsewhere in the world may stampede to possible cures: kimchi, Korean pickled cabbage, is already reputed to fend off avian flu in poultry.
Meanwhile, we bloggers flap through cyberspace like wild geese over central Asia, trusting to instinct to get us safely to our unknown destination.
Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.