When a new strain of avian influenza suddenly appeared in East Asia around the turn of the year, thoughts jumped to SARS, and headline writers went wild. The human death toll topped 20 in Vietnam and Thailand, and the infection spread rapidly across China and East Asia.
The strain first appeared in South Korea in mid-December and by the end of February, emerged all over China as well as Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Pakistan and the US. Chickens, ducks and other birds were culled by the millions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) issued serious warnings, saying that if not strictly controlled, the bird flu epidemic could end up challenging SARS (900+ deaths) in its impact.
China appeared lucky in terms of human infections, but the impact on livestock agriculture was huge, and there were questions yet again about the speed and veracity of some information releases.
But the sense of boundless panic seen during the SARS phenomenon almost exactly a year ago was largely missing. For most of China it was business as usual, although chicken meat sales were down, and Peking ducks were not being consumed by tourists at the usual rate.
The overall economic consequences of the avian flu outbreak were still not clear. But while China tourist numbers were reported to be off somewhat, the generally positive business climate of 2004 continued almost unaffected.
Logic suggested that KFC would be seriously affected. However, after opening its 1,000th Mainland restaurant, KFC said that sales dipped only slightly since the start of the outbreak, with restaurants were still full of customers during peak hours.
According to the WHO, the first recorded epidemic of H5N1 avian flu in humans occurred in Hong Kong in 1997. The virus was observed to affect multiple organs, whereas human flu primarily affects the respiratory system. It was also observed to have a high mortality rate in humans. Observations of humans infected in the current outbreak have proven consistent with those of 1997.
The reason SARS caused so much economic damage and avian flu hasn't (unless you're in the chicken business) is, to borrow the parlance of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a question of "unknown unknowns" and "known unknowns."
SARS was an "unknown unknown" – most people hadn't conceived of such a lethal virus that could spread around the planet with such speed, and in the early stages there was no way of knowing whether it was Black Death all over again.
Avian flu, emerging in the post-SARS world, was a "known unknown" – sometimes lethal like SARS, but nowhere near as scary, partly because SARS was still so fresh in everyone's minds.
What is worrisome is the vastness of the outbreak and what WHO officials described as the indecent haste of some countries to declare the disease under control.
The bird flu watch continues. Meanwhile the poultry business is in disarray and vegetarianism looks increasingly sensible.