Matt Ridley explains why the breathless claims that this or that flu outbreak could rival the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 should not be taken too seriously:
Here we go again. A new bird-flu virus in China, the H7N9 strain, is spreading alarm. It has infected about 130 people and killed more than 30. Every time this happens, some journalists compete to foment fear, ably assisted by cautious but worried scientists, and then tell the world to keep calm. We need a new way to talk about the risk of a flu pandemic, because the overwhelming probability is that this virus will kill people, yes, but not in vast numbers.
In recent years flu has always proved vastly less perilous than feared. In 1976 more people may have died from bad reactions to swine-flu vaccine than from swine flu. Since 2005, H5N1 bird flu has killed 374 people, not the two million to 7.4 million deemed possible by the World Health Organization. In 2009, H1N1 Mexican swine flu proved to be a normal flu episode despite apocalyptic forecasts.
No doubt some readers will remind me that, in the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!”, there eventually was a wolf. And that in 1918 maybe 50 million people died of influenza world-wide. So we should always worry a bit. But perhaps it’s not just luck that has made every flu pandemic since then mild; it may be evolutionary logic.
Of course, just about every story about influenza you’ll encounter goes the Chicken Little route:
There’s no mystery as to why we talk up the risk every time: All the incentives point that way. Who among the headline-seeking journalists, reader-seeking editors, fund-seeking scientists, contract-seeking vaccine makers or rear-end-covering politicians has even a modest incentive to say: “It may not be as bad as all that”?