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Somewhat perverse

Posted by Richard Friday, August 26, 2005

We have written so many times about the appalling ignorance of the mainstream media so often that yet another example should come as no surprise.

But, in its pronouncements on avian 'flu in its editorial today, The Telegraph really does take the biscuit.

Headed, "EU is right to get into a flap over avian flu", it goes on to say, of the commission, that "it is entirely right and proper that the strain should be closely monitored and the commission kept fully informed, not least with regard to the remote but real possibility of mutation into a deadly human influenza."

"It is usually appropriate to question, even to ridicule, the European Union and its institutions," The Telegraph continues, "and this newspaper has never shrunk from subjecting them to the derision they deserve." It then adds, "in this case, however, the commission would appear to be acting with measured common sense, and soberly fulfilling its role in effecting a co-ordinated response to the risk of a cross-border outbreak of disease - one of the few roles, in fact, in which it can actually be of use."

"Too often in the past," it concludes, "the EU has acted with inefficiency and sloth, then over-reacted when taken by surprise. If the commission now seems to be planning precipitately for something that might never happen, we should not complain."

Actually, we should complain. The present “flap” over the avian ’flu strain H5N1 has been brought about by a report from Kazakstan of the death of 14,000 birds there, indicating that the virus has broken out of its reservoir in China and is possibly heading our way.

What the Telegraph report does not say – although some do – is that the birds affected are geese, which is unusual to say the very least. Avian 'flu notoriously does not kill geese, which carry the virus unaffected and thence act in spreading the disease to susceptible birds. Therefore, the possibility is that the Kazakstan outbreak is not avian 'flu at all, or that the H5N1 strain has mutated in a unique way that has made it even more problematical.

While this is speculation, that itself brings up another vital point. To date – as far as we understand - no copy of the virus has been isolated from the Kazakstan outbreak and made available to Western scientists for study, which means our knowledge of the behaviour of the virus is extremely limited and we are unable to confirm in any way the nature of the threat to which we are potentially exposed.

If the international system was working at all well, there should be enormous pressure being brought to bear on the Russians to release a copies of the virus so that scientists across the world can get to work. So far, from the commission, we have heard nothing of this.

Thirdly, and closer to home, the diagnostic tests for avian 'flu virus are, to put it mildly, are "crude". The strain typing does not discriminate between relatively mild and benign forms of the virus and those which are highly pathogenic, making the response uncertain potentially giving rise to false alarms and unnecessary losses. That is something the commission and our own government should be addressing.

Altogether, therefore, the commission's response has been wholly inadequate and, more to the point – and typical of the beast – it has been keeping quite about serious inadequacies in the monitoring system which it should be addressing. It seems to me that the commission is indeed acting with its usual level of "inefficiency and sloth". For the Telegraph to be so fulsome in its praise, therefore, is somewhat perverse.

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