Which epidemic has caused Americans greater anxiety: the Ebola outbreak, which began last year in Africa and has killed thousands of people there, or the strain of influenza that has now infected poultry in twenty-one states? The answer is obvious. Ebola, which was responsible for two deaths in the United States, caused a level of unfettered hysteria hardly seen here since Senator Joseph McCarthy accused half the country’s creative class of holding membership in the Communist Party. The bird flu, although it has now caused the deaths of more than forty-five million chickens, devastated the American poultry industry, doubled the price of most eggs, and is by far the worst such outbreak in U.S. history, somehow doesn’t seem as menacing to people in this country. No doubt that is in part because the virus has not killed a single person. It doesn’t even infect humans. We can only hope that those facts remain unchanged. But we shouldn’t bet millions of lives on it.
The 2009 H1N1 outbreak started in animals, then mutated and became infectious to humans. But vigorous responses by public-health officials, as well as plain luck, limited its impact. “If H1N1 had been more virulent, it would have killed millions of people,”the Stanford biologist Nathan Wolfe told me at the time. “Maybe tens of millions. Once it got out there, that thing burned right through the forest. We caught an amazingly lucky break, but let’s not kid ourselves. Luck like that doesn’t last.”
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