With the declaration of swine flu as a pandemic and (by the United States) a national emergency, we are once again besieged by influenza alarmists. This book, published in 2005, was one of the earliest to cash in on the fear of bird flu (H%N1).
It’s worth reading for the historical and medical background. He goes into a lot of detail regarding past influenza pandemics and outbreaks. Then he goes into a lot of social history background of the developing world, urbanization and how the modern agricultural industry is changing the world.
It’s obvious he’s got an anti-capitalist ax to grind, and so you must make some allowances for his bias, which does influence what he writes. For example, early on he compares the bird flu influenza H5N1 virus to the infection in Michael Crichton’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, saying that it becomes progressively more pathological as time goes by.
He needs to re-read the ending of that book – the infection in that book actually evolves from vicious killer of people into harmlessness. As in many of Crichton’s novels, the real threat to people is NOT the outer space virus (or dinosaurs), but our belief that we can control the uncontrollable.
Crichton actually anticipates evolutionary biology in that book. And the spokesperson of that discipline, Paul Ewald, argued in 2005 that a bird flu pandemic would not kill millions of people such as happened in 1918. According to him, the 1918 virus evolved into the efficient killer of people it was because of World War I.
Davis addresses this by arguing that the densely populated slums of the big cities of the developing world may duplicate the conditions that caused the 1918 virus to evolve into a mega-killer.
Davis uses this issue to criticize the trend of modern agriculture. Here his bias is obvious.
That many people in the developed world are leaving the country for the big cities slums is undoubtedly true – as happened in the developed world in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
He assumes this is happening because of big agribusiness and corrupt politicians is deliberately driving them out. That, if they had their way, they’d prefer to stay on their little rice farms raising free-grazing chickens for eggs and cockfighting. He doesn’t seem to consider that many people want to have a chance at a better life for themselves or, if they can’t get out of those slums, for their children to have a better life than that offered by rural isolation.
He attacks many political attacks on public health infrastructure, and some of his arguments undoubtedly have some merit. However, to attack the Reagan administration for focusing on the “middle class” problems of cancer and heart disease is to be deliberately ignorant of how devastating those conditions are to the poor.
The H5N1 avian flu virus is still out there – it could still became a disease threatening everybody alive.