Avian flu gives a delightful second meaning to the phrase "air borne virus." Avian flu is also pretty terrifying, as I've just discovered by reading this article in Seattle's newspaper "The Stranger."
"Pandemic" is a very clinical-sounding word, upon first hearing it. To say it aloud doesn't cause one's heartbeat to quicken, doesn't invoke any kind of impassioned response. "Epidemic" still sounds more frightening to me, more familiarly terrifying. But "epi-" means "staying in one place." "Pan-" means "everywhere." Something that is "pandemic" affects people everywhere.
The other word that comes to mind is "plague," and you can be sure that that words conjures up an emotional response. "Plague" was the first thing to come to my mind while I was reading the article.
The next thought to cross my mind was, "Why haven't I been warned about this yet? Does Cook County have a plan? As an apartment-dwelling college student, am I at a higher risk? Students aren't known for planning anything in advance, much less stockpiling food and supplies in case of an international flu crisis!" Plus, being young, I'm in danger zone for actually dying from bird flu.
Viruses are terribly interesting. The rate at which some evolve to survive is impressive on any kind of scale. A few phrases in the article conjured images in my mind of an enviro-terror movie--the string of numbers describing the increasing death toll: "four in 2003, 32 in 2004, 43 in 2005, 79 in 2006, and 33 so far in 2007," and "Right now, it's bad, but it won't be really bad until the flu starts to move from person to person," are the kind of panic-inducing phrases that rush at you, white text on black, the music stops, and there's a pause right before a cut to shots of destruction and mayhem.
"Right now, it's bad, but it won't be really bad until the flu starts to move from person to person...Right now, people can only catch bird flu from infected birds; however...it will eventually learn to transmit itself easily from person to person. Once that happens, a pandemic will occur."
Because the disease takes so long to kill, it will provide plenty of time for passage to as many people as possible. The author of the article describes vividly just how many other humans we each come into contact with everyday, without ever physically touching another person. That kind of thing doesn't usually scare me, or even bother me much. What it takes to avoid this everyday contact is what throws me off: staying home. Not leaving the house. Holing up until the thing passes. Essentially, hiding.
Like I said, the idea that thousands of other people have touched the things I touch doesn't scare me. What does scare me? Zombies. Hiding in your home doesn't work against zombies, not for long, anyway. Sooner or later they'll break in and you'll have to start bashing some skulls (or you'll run out of supplies and have to leave your home and THEN start bashing some skulls).
Avian flu isn't like zombies. The infected aren't going to wander the streets, trying to infect everyone else they meet (well, not intentionally, and not after symptoms have set in...unless there are going to be carriers, which adds another level of terror I hadn't considered before). You can stay in your house, and no one will come after you. But viruses are more difficult to barricade against; they're air borne, and air can get through some pretty tight spaces. You're hiding from an invisible enemy.
Actually, even as I'm writing all of this, I'm not really feeling panicked about the possibility of an avian flu pandemic. Even it isn't likely to happen, the implications of something like this are interesting to think about. I'm reminded of the book The Plague, by Albert Camus (I recommend it). It's interesting to think about what an experience like this means for the people involved (which would, I suppose, be just about everybody): how does it affect the very meaning of life and humanity? How will the world change, in the less obvious ways?
Food for thought.