Bird flu weirdness

What is it about the Avian flu that seems to inspire all sorts of wild craziness? Yes, the avian flu has the potential to be a big problem in humans (but is not one yet--so far its main lethal affect has been in birds). Yes, if it ever acquired the ability to be transmitted from person to person, rather than only from bird to human, it could cause a pandemic as nasty as the 1918 influenza pandemic, but, as far as can be determined, it has not acquired such an ability yet. Nonetheless, the avian flu inspires a lot more kookiness than more likely threats, such as the return or emergence of a more virulent strain of your run-of-the-mill flu. As evidence, I present here a trio of bird flu-inspired stories that just leave me shaking my head.

First up, never let it be said that anyone ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American (or, it would appear, the Asian) public. Indeed, this story suggests that our Asian friends are every bit as gullible in some areas as any altie:

LG Electronics, the world's leading air conditioner maker, said on Thursday that it will start selling air conditioners that prevent avian influenza with a special filter coated with a substance extracted from a fermented kimchi. The new air conditioners target Southeast Asian countries affected by bird flu and will be marketed this year.

The new products, nicknamed ``Anti-A.I. Aircon,'' have a filter covered with an anti-bacterial substance extracted from kimchi, South Korea's spicy fermented cabbage dish, the company said in a press conference.

"A special filter is coated with a substance called leuconostoc citreum, which is derived from kimchi. After tests, the filter was found to block viruses that causes bird flu,'' said Seo Seok-jang, chief of the company's air conditioner research lab, during the conference held at Grand Hyatt Hotel in central Seoul.

Hmmm. Let's see. They coat a filter with an "antibacterial substance" and claim it will protect the users of its air conditioner from the bird flu. It turns out that LG is exploiting a common belief in Asia that kimchi can cure the bird flu, combined with a single study looking at 13 chickens infected with the bird flu. These chickens were given kimchi, and apparently 11 recovered. Somehow LG has extrapolated this single small study that hasn't been replicated yet, to conclude that Kimchi would protect against bird flu if air conditioning filters were coated with it. Either that, or LG just wants to exploit Kimchi craze that this study has apparently spawned. Given that Kimchi is a rather pungent cabbage, one can only hope that they found a way to remove the odor.

Next, it would appear that the Utne has gone totally woo with this article, entitled Diluting a Disease: Could Homeopathy Stop the Avian Flu? I actually used to like Utne, but it's gotten just too flaky for me to take anymore, and this ridiculously credulous article is just one more indication of how bad Utne has gotten. I was going to write a takedown of this one, but I found that Abel Pharmboy had already beaten me to the debunking, in the process coming up with one of the best sarcastic takedowns of homeopathy I've seen in a long time:

But nowhere in the article is mention of what specific homeopathic remedies would be used against avian flu. Why wouldn't one make a 30C dilution of the H5N1 bug if that were how homeopathy really worked?

In fact, why not just drink regular tap water as your homeopathic remedy??? Think about it: the molecules of water we drink today could have been the urine of Alexander the Great or the industrial effluent of Monsanto. Today's water has had diluted in it over thousands and millions of years almost every infectious organism, toxic metal or organic substance (natural or synthetic). Hence, it should be a remedy for every illness created by every solute every dissolved amongst its molecules.

Let's say that I am willing to admit that homeopathy might work, albeit through some unknown physical mechanism that I cannot explain. What would follow is that drinking tap water should have every potential remedy in it that I could ever want, to cure everything from multiple chemical sensitivities and mercury-induced autism all the way to the diseases I might incur from eating anything from gold mine tailings to my own feces.

Oh, I forgot..drinking tap water would not create revenue for homeopathic practitioners.

As so eloquently stated by the late Gilda Radner's character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, "Never mind."

Heh. Never mind, indeed. Damn. I wish I'd thought of that description of homeopathy.

Lastly, unfortunately, it would appear that Islamic anti-Semites have gotten into the act as well. In a rambling article that claims that the avian flu was developed as a "race bomb" to be used against Arabs and designed to target "Arab genes":

"The question that arises today is whether the virus chosen by the Zionists for their 'Israeli race bomb' is the avian flu virus. Some might hasten to object by saying: 'But this virus first appeared, in 2003, only in east and southeast Asia, and spread to Asia Minor [i.e., Turkey] only in 2006!' This is a correct observation, but it does not rule out [the possibility that Israel first spread the virus] in that remote region out of several motivations, including [the following]:"

"The AIDS Virus was Developed to Serve as a 'Race Bomb' Against the Blacks"

"1. [Israel wished to] test the effects of the virus on the special genes of the yellow Asian race, which is highly specialized. In addition, the yellow race - especially in China and Vietnam - is a rising power [which threatens] the exclusive American hegemony over the world. We cannot refrain from mentioning that the AIDS virus was developed to serve as a 'race bomb' against the blacks, though after its release, it also [infected] white people, albeit in smaller numbers.

"2. Indonesian society constitutes a particularly suitable environment for testing the [avian flu] virus on [various] races, including [people] of Arab descent. This is because most Indonesians are of Arab or Yemenite descent, or have mixed blood through intermarriage with Arabs.

"3. The virus may have been released in this remote part of Asia in order to obscure the truth by shifting the world's attention to that distant region... and in order to make its transmission through birds seem like a natural phenomenon.

"But the [manner in which] the virus spread directly from east to west Asia (i.e., to Asia Minor) raises many questions. Firstly, birds do not migrate from east to west Asia, but from the northern [regions] of the world to the southern [regions]. If we assume that the disease spread horizontally because birds in each region came into contact with one another, we would expect to see the disease appear in China, Tibet, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran and the Caucasus before it appears in Turkey. These are wide and extensive regions, so how could the disease skip [over them] like that?

"Therefore, we are led to the inescapable [conclusion] that there must have been a northern point of origin from which the virus spread, or in which it was planted, at a time which corresponded with the southbound migration of the birds. This point of origin may have been on the northern [shore] of the Black Sea or in east Turkey...

"The suspicion regarding a link between the avian flu and Israel's 'race bomb' is compounded by a report from the Palestinian Authority, regarding 85,000 good chickens that were buried [by Israel] in fields in the West Bank, and by the fact that the Palestinian Authority was not allowed to take samples from these chickens for testing. [Another telling fact] is what happened later - the case of a young Arab from one of the villages around Jerusalem [who caught the disease]. This means that the disease appeared in a new location, this time in the West Bank, simultaneously with the discovery of a new case in northern Iraq."

I think the ludicrousness of this paranoid conspiracy-mongering speaks for itself. The rebuttal should be the same as the one I gave in various discussion forums when The Sunday Times printed a ridiculous story claiming that Israel was developing a biological weapon targeted to "Arab genes":

Anyone with a basic knowledge of molecular biology, genetics, or virology could tell you why. First off, there are no genes that are 100% specific to any one race that could be targeted with such a construct. Attempts to do so would inevitably also attack other races and could not be specific. Next, even if such genes existed, it is highly unlikely that they would be sufficiently distinct for such an organism to target, or, more importantly, that they would be located in the cell or in a biochemical pathway that would allow their use to target an organisml. Third, many Jews in Israel are so closely related genetically to Arabs, that it is difficult to imagine that they would be suicidal enough to try to target "Arab genes" (for want of a better term) with such an organism. That would surely result in the infection of a large percentage of the Israeli population as well. Finally, virology and molecular biology are not sufficiently advanced to target genes precisely enough to construct such an organism EVEN IF one could find a gene that is specific to Arabs AND is amenable to use in this fashion, either by virtue of its location on the cell surface or in an appropriate biochemical pathway. Such targeting is theoretically possible, but lack of sufficient specificity (remember, even a 0.1% infection rate in people not carrying the targeted gene would have devastating consequences) and actual viral engineering issues make it incredibly unlikely.

Not that that little problem would stop the Jews, according to this article:

"Tampering with Arab genes [without affecting] the white race is very difficult. But the Zionists are capable of attempting this [risky] adventure if [they have] a preventive treatment or a [cure for the disease]. Recall that the assassination of Yasser Arafat was carried out by means of biological weapons. The attempt on the life of the fighter [Hamas leader] Khaled Mash'al [likewise] involved a biological [agent] which [is countered by] a secret antidote that only the Zionists possess."

The craziness and paranoia about the bird flu continues apace, whether it be to make money pedding unproven (and unlikely to be effective) filters, to promote quackery such as homeopathy, or to fuel the paranoid and anti-Semitism of Arab nations. It's truly a multipurpose microbe.


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One other bird flu story, this one actually pretty reasonable: The ravens at the Tower of London are being kept indoors.

On the Tonight Show Bill Maher called bird flu a conspiracy between the US government and big pharma to sell more drugs and get our minds off other, more important things. He also said not to take a bird flu shot because it will give you bird flu. It seemed to me that Jay Leno fairly quickly steered the conversation away from that particular rant.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Ah, the "distraction" theory of politics.

You know, I've called things distractions at various times myself and it's undeniable that politicians do bring up bogus issues to distract people from other problems. But one has to be careful explaining things as distractions, because, thrown around indiscriminately, it explains too much: every single thing that happens in the news is a distraction from the previous thing that people were talking about, which itself was a distraction from the thing before that. You might as well complain that souls are trapped on the wheel of desire and prevented from attaining nirvana.

Matt, I assume you are aware that Bill Maher is a well-known altie (self-styled) skeptic. I love his political rants, but his positions on things like vaccination are embarrassing and make it hard to take him seriously on any subject.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Sorry for this comment. I cleared my cookies a while ago and was able to post a comment to a RI thread, but then later not to PZ's blog. I cleared cookies again and was successful there. Now I am just trying to see if I can comment here.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

The Avian bird flu is total b.s. I'm supposed to sweat it, because a few geese died in Singapore?

I don't think so. Michael Fumento has debunked this tripe right here.

By Hank Barnes (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Whoa, Hank needs to play some catch-up on bird flu (maybe not the end of the world, but not bs either) and Fumento.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Mark Paris,

According to NOAA, there are about 67 deaths from lightning strikes each year in the U.S.

My rule of thumb: Anything (virus, toxin, bacteria, chemical from Monsanto, thimersol, etc, etc) that doesn't reach this threshold, should be immediately ignored and/or mocked.

The number of SARS death in the U.S.? Zero
The number of avian bird flu death in the U.S.? Zero

Don't be a chicken little:)

By Hank Barnes (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

I think the point of this post was to say that bird flu, although it has the potential of jumping the bird-man divide and causing an epidemic, is not now threatening large-scale death and destruction. I agree with that. There have been few deaths worldwide from avian flu. But a little less than 90 years ago there was a flu epidemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans. This from the Stanford web site regarding the 1918 flu epidemic:

"More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351."

We aren't facing that now, but don't bury your head in the sand and pretend that it couldn't happen again.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Orac wrote: "Given that Kimchi is a rather pungent cabbage, one can only hope that they found a way to remove the odor." Wrong, cabbage-breath! You must leave the odor in - that's what kills the avian flu virus. If the avian flu had originated in Europe, filters coated with Limburger or sauerkraut would be required. I wonder if the drug discovery folks have looked at kimchi. The next penicillin maybe? Buy kimchi futures now! Call 1-800-KIM-CHI1.

A little late to make this comment, but I wonder how LG expects an antibacterial agent to kill viruses?

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Mark Paris,

But a little less than 90 years ago there was a flu epidemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans.

True. That happened in 1918. Wasn't there something else going on at that time? Yes, I believe it was.........World War I.

If you dislocate hundreds of thousands of kids, send them to foreign lands, practically starve them, expose them to all sorts of exotic people and exotic bugs overseas and then stress them out on the battle fields of the Argonne Forest and Beleau Wood -- Yes, I agree -- the flu will run rampant.

That ain't what's happening today.

Therefore, comparing the flu pandemic of 1918 with a few febrile geese today in Indonesia is......inapt.

Hank B

By Hank Barnes (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Hank, true, the 1918 flu epidemic killed an estimated 43,000 American soldiers, half of those who died in WW I. Estimates of deaths vary, but the following is based on the Stanford web site. It killed an estimated 675,000 people in the US. It was estimatd that 20 percent of the world population contracted the flu. It was estimated that the death rate in India was about 50 per 1000. It depressed the average life expectancy in the US by ten years, mainly because it hit people in the 20-to-40 age range.

Of course it's inapt to compare a flu that has killed a handful of people to that. The point I was trying to make, apparently without success, is that another flu epidemic is possible. The fact that it is 2006 does not change that. The fact that bird flu has killed only a few, and not just birds, does not change that. It's OK if you want to pretend that bad things can't happen to us because we live now, at the summit of human civilization; it's just not a very realistic attitude.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

I should point out that the worldwide spread of the flu in the early 1900s is blamed to some extent on the worldwide movement of people brought about by WW I. There is far greater, wider and quicker travel today than 90 years ago. If a similar epidemic started today, it would spread much more quickly than the 1918 flu.

Again, I agree that the avian flu is not an epidemic and may well never become one. That does not mean there will never be another flu epidemic.

Oh, and another by-the-way about Bill Maher. He thinks all flu comes from birds.

And yet another by-the-way ... I am having to delete scienceblog cookies regularly to post comments here.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

My understanding of the whole thing: It's not a big problem now, because it's hard to get infected. If it becomes easy to infect people with it (due to that mutation everyone's worried about), then lots of people will likely become infected, and lots of people will die.

The thing I think I missed out on: What's the mortality rate among those who do get infected?

I'm not about to buy an outbreak suit, but I am going to try to keep an eye on it.

I'm with Orac and the sceptics on this. But I think Hank had better get a bit more up to date. Confirmed bird deaths have reached western Europe. And several people have died in Turkey. Might look a long way away to you, but it's not that far for some of us.

I think I'll treat this flu like I do the others right now--make sure my nutrition is good, I get plenty of rest, handwashing and don't worry about it at the moment. I'm aware it's out there, but I'm not staying awake nights...yet....that may change if the transmission ever does!


Confirmed bird deaths have reached western Europe

No. You read that statement somewhere in the press and are simply repeating it here.

How do "they" (whoever "they" are) confirm that a certain bird in western Europe died from a certain flu caused by a certain virus H5N1?

By Hank Barnes (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Hank, where do you get the information that leads you to doubt reports of bird deaths' being caused by avian flu?

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink


Nothing in particular. I have no dog in the fight. I just have trouble with imprecise useage of the word "cause."

1. Do birds die? Yes
2. Do birds die of the flu? Sure.
3. Generally, Are birds infected with viruses? Yes
4. Are birds infected with H5N1? I don't see why not.
5. Were DNA sequences of H5N1 obtained from birds killed by the flu? I have no reason to doubt it.
6. Did said H5N1 "cause" said birds in (5) to die?

Whoa, partner, I stop there. Certainly possible. I can't say "likely," though. That would require a whole buncha more work.

But, I don't say "unlikely" either.

Barnes, H

By Hank Barnes (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Maybe there's something wrong with my computer's display, or my eyesight is getting worse. I re-read Sharon's posting multiple times, but I cannot find a passage where she claimed that one specific strain of avian flu is responsible for the confirmed bird deaths in western Europe.

By Frankster (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

For those of you in the UK, the water from my tap has kept the 'memory' of Cassivellaunus and the Druids, so is a sovereign remedy to bird flu, scabies, and epilepsy. A bargain at only £75/ml!!1!

As for LG and kimchi, recall the old saying - when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail ....

By firefalluk (not verified) on 23 Feb 2006 #permalink

Interesting. Harvey seems to be insinuating that I'm not qualified to discuss HIV and AIDS because I'm a surgeon, and what does he purport to rebut me with?

An article by a surgeon.

He buried the needle on my irony meter. Damn, that's the second or third time this week that's been done by some commenter or another. I'm really going to have to get a more sturdy one.

It's irony inflation. Try recalibrating. You need to expand the range.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 23 Feb 2006 #permalink

You might be an altie if you:

think Michael Crichton is an authority on global warming.

think Boyd Haley, Gary Null and Sherry Tenpenny are authorities on autism

or if you make comparisons between your hero and Copernicus

By Chris Noble (not verified) on 23 Feb 2006 #permalink

Is the bird flu the big pandemic. not sure, but do know that down the road there is something comingand it may be thru the interaction of a gene associated with AIDS and the bird flu. See my website, the 2006 Gold section for explanation that 70% of humanity could be TAGGED forDEATH AIDS has now been proven to have jumped from chimps to man:an environmental response. My website then explains about mutagens and environmental damage pressures that direct evolution, and flu is one of the controllers.We are destroyiing our planet , and Dr. Lovelock (GAIA theory, who also reviewed my work)has said earth is a living organism that will fight back. Do we have to die? No. Will we do anything about it? Probably not. Do you care? Thank you . E.A.Greenhalgh