Worried About Bird Flu? Welcome to The Party, Pal. You're Late.

Worried About Bird Flu? Welcome to The Party, Pal. You're Late.
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Everyone's talking about bird flu now.

It's an evolving situation. Right now, the mainstream news media is desperately trying to catch up on a story that's been happening for two years now. It would be funny if so many lives weren't at stake. The public reaction? Look at the discourse: Is it in pasteurized milk? Is it in hamburgers? Is it in hot wings? Do we have a vaccine? Does it work? Is there enough?

Apparently, the most recent official word is that 1 in 5 milk samples is now testing positive for avian flu, but pasteurization is killing it. Officials are trying to spin this as a good thing.

Well, okay...

I've noticed something about the way the news media covers these things. Whether it's bird flu or another unfolding disaster, they do the same thing. They design these stories now to simultaneously trigger a fear response, only to dismiss that fear and assure everyone that everything's okay "for now." They conveniently omit or downplay any proactive measure that anyone could take. So they work everyone up into a frenzy, then tell us not to worry, and then don't provide anyone with any useful framework for action, at all.

Let's save ourselves some time:

First off, assume bird flu is airborne. Why? Because that's what viruses do. They spread through the air. You can thank aerosol scientists and environmental engineers like Linsey Marr for bringing that one to everyone's attention. I've spent the last two years learning a lot from engineers and scientists who study how germs move through the air. Maybe you did, too.

By the time the CDC or the WHO confirms airborne spread of bird flu, it's going to be far too late for millions and millions of people. It's really not fear-mongering, and it's not that big of a deal, to just assume we're dealing with an airborne virus and wear a decent mask. Not a cloth mask. Not a surgical mask. An FFP2 or FFP3 mask like the 3M Aura or Flo Mask. (No, I'm not making commissions off those. They're just examples of comfortable, effective masks.)

Second, understand why humans haven't been spreading bird flu (yet). It's not luck, magic, or a positive attitude.

There's one or two proteins standing between us and doom. These proteins protect humans from infection. An article in Nature talks about our natural defenses against strains of avian flu, and how they eventually fail. Scientists have a lot of evidence telling us the 1918 pandemic was caused by an avian flu virus that evolved resistance to the BTN3A3 AND MX1 proteins. Those are the only two protections we have, and they eventually give out.

This bird flu isn't new. We've been watching H5N1 decimate wild bird populations for two solid years now. It has wrecked the poultry industry. We've watched it cause bad outbreaks in several other mammal populations, from seals to minks. The public only cares now because it's going to impact their precious milk supply.


Assume that bird flu will evolve to spread among humans. Ignore all the hemming and hawing from scientists that it "may" or "might" happen or "hopefully won't happen."

It has already happened, plenty of times. Once an avian flu learns how to jump to mammals, it's not going to decide it's happy with cows and retire on a dairy farm. If we've learned anything about diseases, it's that they're incredibly opportunistic. This bird flu is trying to jump to people. It's already practicing. Its grandparents have already jumped to humans and caused pandemics. It would be stupid to sit around hoping it doesn't happen.

Assume there will be a problem with the vaccine. Assume it either won't work against the particular mutated version that starts spreading, or there won't be enough, or that our government will botch the rollout. We've seen this movie before. You can change the party in power. It doesn't matter. They're all incompetent. And they don't care about us.

If you want to stay safe, just quit drinking milk if you can. Give up dairy products. You know someone is going to get sick and die from tainted milk or cheese before the alarms go off, and that someone could be you. My family switched to oat milk and vegan cheese years ago, for a range of reasons.

We don't miss dairy.

If you really want to stay safe, just wear an N95 mask (or better) in public. Get over your fear of masks. Most of you already know this part, but most of your friends and family have willed themselves into complete ignorance here. That's gonna have to change.

We don't have to repeat all the same stupid mistakes we made in 2020. Back then, many of us didn't understand anything about viruses, germs, clean air, or immune systems. We're not experts, but we sure as hell know enough to protect ourselves. The smartest among us are doing it.

We know that HEPA filters and Corsi-Rosenthal boxes work wonders. We also know how to change up our habits when necessary.

And yet...

We can predict that a large portion of the population won't take any of these precautions. They've been led to believe we "overreacted" to Covid. So they're going to do this weird thing where they panic about pasteurized milk while completely neglecting the proactive, common sense steps we could all be taking to keep this looming bird flu pandemic from spiraling out of control, or even starting in the first place.

It's called the preparedness paradox.

People don't want to take precautions. They don't want to be proactive. In the rare cases they manage to avoid doom, they seem to express an ironic sense of regret. They think they skated by disaster on luck, and they forget or even complain about the precautions that kept them safe. So they abandon those steps. Then the bad thing happens to them, and they think it was luck. Sometimes, they even blame the precautions they abandoned.

Sound familiar?

The 1918 pandemic was the stuff of nightmares, and that one happened before societies became truly globalized and interconnected. So you can count on this next bird flu pandemic being worse.

We've had a few close calls since the beginning of Covid. There was monkeypox. There was Ebola. There was MERS. There's no shortage of deadly diseases out there, all of them evolving and preying on our weakened immune systems. (Yes, Covid weakened our immune systems.)

So, it's not just bird flu.

Over the last few years, I've learned to stop getting worked up over any particular virus. We should all be paying attention to bird flu. It's the one scientists are most worried about now. It won't be the last. As Ed Yong has written, we're living in the pandemicene now.

That doesn't mean we should spend the rest of our lives "hiding" or "living in fear." It means we change how we live. We change how we work. We finally embrace clean air technology. We normalize masks.

We adapt.

I'm not living in fear. I enjoy my life. The joy I derive from life doesn't come from eating out, going to movies, shopping, or... drinking milk. It would be nice to do these things again someday, but I don't need them to feel normal. I also don't need to constantly wonder when and where I should wear an N95 mask. If I'm going somewhere, I just wear a mask.

It's simple.

People like me aren't the ones panicking. You only panic when you don't know what's going to happen. You only panic when you lack a larger context and framework to understand what's going on. You only panic when you cling to misguided hopes, and then those hopes fall apart. We know what's going to happen. For some of us, it has been an agonizingly slow process to watch our "leaders" continually fail to get bird flu under control. We're not the ones who start riots over toilet paper. We're the ones who get ready.

Join the ready.

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