Beginning in the 1980s, there have been regular predictions from the scientific community, governments, and the media about imminent or occurring pandemics (a pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that spreads through human populations across a large region). Reports in the media focus on raising alarm over the alleged seriousness of the disease concerned and predict high numbers of deaths.
It is instructive to look back over the history of these modern pandemics and see how many of these predictions have been borne out, and to what extent.
In 1987, a report in the New York Times announced, "AIDS May Dwarf the Plague". US News declared "the disease of them [homosexuals] suddenly is the disease of us [heterosexuals]". Oprah Winfrey stated on her TV show, "one out of five heterosexuals will be dead of AIDS by 1990" (that's about 50 million people). US health Secretary Otis Bowen said AIDS could make the Black Death seem "pale by comparison."
In 2008 the relatively few new cases of AIDS in heterosexual populations led the World Health Organization to declare the heterosexual AIDS epidemic, outside of Africa, over.
West Nile Virus
In 1999 in the North-East United States, including New York City, an outbreak occurred of a novel mosquito-borne illness called West Nile Virus.
In 1999 the Competitive Enterprise Institute argued "for effective mosquito control polices and against environmental activists' efforts to prevent them". In practice, this meant multiple aerial sprayings of pesticides over New York City's streets. The pesticides sprayed included the extremely toxic organophosphate malathion, a suspected hormone disrupter and possible carcinogen, and pyrethroids, which are nerve toxins and suspected hormone disrupters.
28,943 human cases and 1130 deaths from 1999 through 2008 were reported as of February 13, 2009. Most cases of infection go unnoticed or produce mild symptoms. Some cases lead to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord) and can be fatal. The elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems may be vulnerable to serious illness resulting from the virus, and most deaths are among the elderly.
A New York City Health Department survey of blood samples taken from people who lived in northern Queens, the epicenter of the 1999 outbreak, showed that 19 out of 677 tested positive for the virus. None of the 19 became seriously ill, and all either reported no symptoms or mild illness, such as a low-grade fever.
Aerial spraying of pesticides against West Nile Virus was blamed by some for the widespread die-off of lobsters and other crustaceans and the consequent death of the lobster-fishing industry. "The magnitude and suddenness of the 1999 die-off points to insecticide toxicity or pesticide runoffs," Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, told a New York Times reporter. Bayer does not swallow a competing theory that a type of amoeba called Paramoebas was responsible. "Paramoebas would cause a gradual rather than a sudden change," he said.
Municipal officials in charge of spray programs in New York and other cities warned residents to remain indoors during the scheduled spray times, closing windows and turning off air conditioners to prevent the chemicals from entering their homes. But in one case, a New York resident was sprayed at close range when trucks began spraying at 10:00 pm rather than at midnight, as they had been scheduled to do. At an April, 2000 meeting in New York, several people said they thought they were suffering neurological problems resulting from the spraying, and one doctor said she had seen 160 patients with minor neurological problems possibly attributable to the spraying.
As is often the case with such programs, risks were not adequately assessed and compared with the risks of actually contracting the illness. Also, illnesses contracted from pesticide exposure were not monitored officially. It was left to citizen groups and NGOs to produce their own reports.
Pesticides may increase mosquito populations
A 1997 study looked at trends in populations of Culiseta melanura, the mosquito primarily responsible for transmitting another mosquito-borne virus, eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), among birds. Over a period of eleven years, Cicero Swamp in New York state was sprayed fifteen times with one insecticide and once with another. Instead of declining, the population of Culiseta melanura grew fifteen-fold during this period. The study suggests that the pesticides may have altered the ecological balance of the swamp, killing organisms that control the mosquito population.
SARS stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome. The SARS epidemic occurred between November 2002 and vanished in July 2003. According to the World Health Organization's 2004 concluding report, between the months of November 2002 and July 2003 there were 8,096 known infected cases and 774 deaths.
Between 2003 and 2009, fewer than 500 people were affected by bird flu, with fewer than 300 deaths.
Baxter releases live bird flu virus
Governments lined up for pharmaceutical company Baxter's swine flu virus in the summer of 2009 spite of the fact that shortly before, the company was responsible for releasing a contaminated seasonal flu vaccine product containing live bird (avian) flu virus from its plant in in Orth-Donau, Austria. Lab workers in the Czech Republic discovered the contamination and blew the whistle before the product was put into widespread use. A report in the Toronto Star stated:
- The contaminated product, a mix of H3N2 seasonal flu viruses and unlabelled H5N1 viruses, was supplied to an Austrian research company. The Austrian firm, Avir Green Hills Biotechnology, then sent portions of it to sub-contractors in the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany.
- The contamination incident, which is being investigated by the four European countries, came to light when the subcontractor in the Czech Republic inoculated ferrets with the product and they died. Ferrets shouldn’t die from exposure to human H3N2 flu viruses. ...
- People familiar with biosecurity rules are dismayed by evidence that human H3N2 and avian H5N1 viruses somehow co-mingled in the Orth-Donau facility. That is a dangerous practice that should not be allowed to happen, a number of experts insisted.
In 2009 criminal charges were filed against Baxter for allegedly "manufacturing and releasing 72 kilos of vaccine material contaminated with live bird flu virus" by Austrian investigative journalist Jane Burgermeister.
Burgermeister states that she objects to the Austrian government's proceeding with giving Baxter a swine flu vaccine contract while the company is undergoing investigation by the police:
- In spite of the ongoing criminal investigation by the police in Austria into Baxter’s release of 72 kilos of pandemic vaccine material, of which the Health Minister is fully aware as is shown by his own correspondence, the Health Minister has rushed ahead with giving Baxter the authority to active the pre arranged contract to provide the “swine flu” vaccines.
See main article, Swine Flu.
In September 2009 the UK chief medical officer Liam Donaldson was forced to admit that the worst case scenario for swine flu had been slashed from 65,000 deaths to 19,000. The Daily Mail reported:
- After millions were spent on antiviral drugs and telephone hotlines, he revealed the toll could be as low as 3,000 - less than half the number who die in an average flu season.
- Even a total of 19,000 deaths would be 2,000 lower than the number who died in the last major seasonal flu epidemic of 1999-2000.
- In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health initially announced that around 65,000 deaths were to be expected. In the meantime, by the start of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1,000 fatalities. By January 2010, fewer than 5,000 persons had been registered as having caught the disease and about 360 deaths had been noted.
It is useful to compare these figures with the figures for the above pandemics about which much alarm was generated.
- Medical correctness (New figures on AIDS cases reveals there is no epidemic), National Review, Mar 15, 1993, subscription req'd to access full article, accessed 7 Aug 2009
- Laurance, Jeremy, "Threat of world AIDS pandemic among heterosexuals is over, report admits", Independent on Sunday, 8 June 2008
- CEI History, CEI website, accessed 7 Aug 2009
- Rachel Massey, West Nile Virus -- Part 1, 11-Oct-2000, Environmental Health News No. 709, 11 October 2000, accessed 7 Aug 2009
- Anna Veksler et al., Assessment of methods for prediction of human West Nile virus (WNV) disease from WNV-infected dead birds, Emerging Themes in Epidemiology, June 2009, 6:4
- New York City Department of Health, "West Nile Virus: A Briefing," CITY HEALTH INFORMATION Vol. 19, No. 1, May 2000, p. 2
- Laurie Nadel, With Lobsters Scarce, Questions Abound, New York Times, 9 December 2001, accessed 7 Aug 2009
- Elisabeth Bumiller, "Mayor Says Pesticide Spraying Victim Was Right," NEW YORK TIMES September 12, 2000, pg. B5
- "Officials Defend Spraying to Curb West Nile Virus," NEW YORK TIMES April 1, 2000, pp. B3
- For example, William C. Sugg and Matthew L. Wilson, "Overkill: Why Pesticide Spraying for West Nile Virus May Cause More Harm Than Good", Toxics Action Center and Maine Environmental Policy Institute, July 2001, accessed 7 Aug 2009
- John J. Howard and Joanne Oliver, "Impact of Naled (Dibrom 14) on the Mosquito Vectors of Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MOSQUITO CONTROL ASSOCIATION Vol. 13, No. 4 (December 1997), pp. 315-325
- Summary of probable SARS cases with onset of illness from 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003, WHO website, 2009, accessed 8 Aug 2009
- Cumulative Number of Confirmed Human Cases of Avian Influenza A/(H5N1) Reported to WHO, WHO website, 1 July 2009, accessed 8 Aug 2009
- Helen Branswell, Baxter: Product contained live bird flu virus, Toronto Star, 27 February 2009, accessed 4 August 2009
- Case About Bird Flu, 23 July 2009, accessed 7 Aug 2009
- Case About Bird Flu, 23 July 2009, accessed 7 Aug 2009
- Daniel Martin, So we're not all going to die of swine flu after all: Chief medical officer reduces death estimates by two-thirds, Daily Mail, 4 Sept 2009, accessed 11 Sept 2009
- Sarah Boseley, WHO accused of losing public confidence over flu pandemic, Guardian, 28 March 2010, acc 29 Mar 2010
- Influenza (Seasonal), WHO fact sheet no. 211, April 2009, accessed 8 Aug 2009
- Christine Dell'Amore, U.S. Swine Flu No Worse Than Seasonal Flu, Experts Say, National Geographic News, April 29, 2009, accessed 18 Aug 2009