A grim, harrowing account of what is happening—and not happening—in Southeast Asia as countries confront bird flu.
Former Washington Post business editor and foreign correspondent Sipress spent years following human outbreaks of bird flu in mainland China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia as the disease relentlessly moved west. The culprit was the virulent H5N1 influenza virus, which has ravaged geese, ducks, other wild fowl, the roosters groomed for cockfighting and, most importantly, domestic chickens, transmitting disease to human bird handlers or consumers. Like all flu viruses, H5N1 is quick to mutate or mix genes with other flu viruses, meaning that it can develop resistance to drugs or vaccines. In some places it may have already become asymptomatic in birds, which makes checking the source of a human outbreak, already problematic, even more formidable. The critical question is when a mutation will ease human-to-human transmission. That will be the takeoff point for a pandemic that will dwarf the mortality of the 1918 flu epidemic. The World Health Organization and other global health leaders, as well as the many epidemiologists and virologists tracking the virus, are convinced that it is not question of if but when. The reasons vary: the globalization of commerce and travel means that all parts of the world are connected within hours; a growing middle class in developing countries is eating more meat, and poultry conglomerates have risen to meet the need, in some cases conspiring with governments to suppress news of poultry disease and required bird cullings; developing countries are still too poor to cope with epidemic disease or vaccinations. Some have pledged not to cooperate in disease surveillance, blaming the West for taking their virus samples to make drugs or vaccines that are too expensive for them. There is still much to be learned about the virus, and Sipress’s sketches of the heroic men and women at the frontlines enrich the narrative, even as he expertly details the obstacles posed when a disease becomes a matter of politics, commerce and culture clash.
Exemplary—and highly frightening—investigative reporting.