Is Bird Flu Really a Threat?

From the January 2006 Trumpet Print Edition

You are a glutton for punishment. Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, every television network, every newspaper from Hong Kong to California—they’ve all covered the coming bird flu pandemic. It is the y2k of y2005, an unimaginable disaster that may never arrive. Reporters recycle the same speculations over and over about something that hasn’t happened yet. A lot of readers/viewers are probably sick of it. Yet here you are just the same, reading your umpteen-kazillionth bird flu article.

So why read yet another article on this subject? Two reasons: 1) Because there is so much information out there about bird flu, it might be difficult to separate fact from fiction. We aim to provide you with the most accurate information about avian flu and its possible effects. 2) The Trumpet is uniquely able to place this information in its proper position prophetically. But not only is the Trumpet privileged to know what God says about pandemics in this end time, it is also required to give a warning about the dangers plagues will pose. The first reason might not be that compelling to some, but the second reason—if what we say is true—makes this the most important article on bird flu you could possibly read.

What Bird Flu Is—and Is Not

Avian flu, also known as bird flu, is an influenza virus typically hosted only by birds, although other animals such as pigs have carried similar infections as well. In the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, an avian flu killed more than 40 million human beings.

Typically, there are two forms of the disease, the first of which is called “low pathogenic.” It tends to have few symptoms and often goes undetected. This allows the avian flu to spread easily through a flock of birds. Scientists believe the viruses are introduced into the flocks in this less virulent form, which then mutates into the more serious, highly pathogenic forms of avian flu. Nearly every bird in a flock can be killed by these forms in less than 48 hours.

In this latest threat, the strain of bird flu in question is called h5n1, and millions have died—but, to this point, almost all the casualties have been birds. In the history of avian influenza, there has neverbeen a strain as large or as widespread as h5n1; an estimated 150 million birds have died or been destroyed. Despite that phenomenal number, the virus is certainly not under control. Rather, according to the World Health Organization (who), h5n1 is now considered endemic in many parts of Indonesia and Vietnam and in some parts of Cambodia, China, Thailand, and possibly also the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Nov. 3, 2005).

Historically, these types of highly pathogenic viruses have not migrated from region to region by migratory species because the birds that contracted it were all dead long before they could complete a migration. A chief concern in the latest outbreak is that migrating species may actually bespreading the bird flu around the world; historically, no strain of bird flu has ever appeared in so many countries at once.

According to who, three things are necessary for a human pandemic to occur: 1) A new influenza type emerges. h5n1 easily meets this criterion. 2) It infects humans, causing serious illness. The human death toll is still less than 100 people—all of whom contracted the virus by direct contact with birds—but since over 50 percent of those who have contracted this strain of bird flu have died, h5n1easily meets this criterion as well. 3) It spreads easily and sustain ably among humans. This is where h5n1 falls short—for now.

Humans cannot pass this strain of bird flu on to other humans; until that happens, there absolutely will not be a pandemic. But before you get too comfortable, understand that bird flu viruses like that in the Spanish pandemic have made this exact mutation before, and millions of human beings have died as a result. The question is, will it make that final mutation this time?

Lee Jong-Wook, leader of who, left no wiggle room on this issue: “It is only a matter of time before an avian-flu virus—most likely h5n1—acquires the ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of human pandemic influenza. We don’t know when this will happen. But we do know that it will happen” (Nov. 7, 2005).

He isn’t alone in that assessment; many scientists say there is no question that h5n1 will make the jump; the question is how soon it will happen and how prepared we will be.

World governments are taking the threat seriously; U.S. President George Bush proposed spending $7.1 billion to prevent a pandemic. The affected countries have culled millions of birds in hopes of preventing a pandemic. But at the same time, “A UN official warned that the repeated outbreaks in China suggested its surveillance systems had failed” (South China Morning Post, Oct. 27, 2005).

It is a simple matter to tell people to kill their birds, but experience shows that it may not happen. In Wantang village in the Hunan district of Xiangtan, authorities promised to destroy all the poultry within 1 kilometer of the death of a 12-year-old girl who had been exposed to h5n1. Many families, though, said they couldn’t afford to lose their chickens and ducks: “This outbreak has ruined our economy,” one farmer said. “I don’t want to kill my birds. They look very healthy to me” (ibid., Oct. 28, 2005). The article reported that the birds were still roaming free, except for those lying dead in the fields.

The reaction to an actual outbreak could be similar. At one point Hong Kong said it would seal its borders if there were an outbreak of h5n1, but quickly backpedaled because of the inconvenience to businesses and families if travel were stopped.

How Prepared Are We?

A pandemic of bird flu would be an unprecedented disaster. Economically, the World Bank warned that a bird flu pandemic could cause global gross domestic product to drop by 2 percent—or about $800 billion a year.

It is difficult to estimate a reasonable death count, but who forecasts have consistently remained at 2 million to 7.4 million deaths worldwide. While calling that estimate “reasoned,” a who spokesman also warned that “you could pick almost any number.” The UN coordinator for avian and human influenza picked from 5 to 150 million people dead.

No one says the world is adequately prepared for a pandemic. There are two general areas of preparation. The first is locating outbreaks. There are 110 who influenza centers in 83 countries, but according to Scientific American, the managers of those facilities acknowledge they are “too porous and too slow.” Global surveillance has increased, but no one has claimed this will stop an eventual pandemic.

The second area of preparation involves stocking up on anti-viral drugs and creating vaccines.

Do these drugs even work? Some sources say no. Realistically, the question isn’t even valid. Tamiflu undoubtedly works for something, but in order for h5n1 to make the jump required to cause a pandemic, it will have to mutate, probably by combining with some form of human flu. Until that mutation happens, there is no guaranteed way to test any vaccine or serum. who confirms that “Because the vaccine needs to closely match the pandemic virus, large-scale commercial production will not start until the new virus has emerged and a pandemic has been declared.”

Even if current treatments turned out to be perfect responses to the new virus, there is not enough to treat everyone. According to who, “On present trends, most developing countries will have no access to vaccines and antiviral drugs throughout the duration of a pandemic.”

A Warning Goes Out

Clearly, there is a tremendous danger posed by bird flu—one that could kill upwards of 100 million people under current levels of preparation. This falls in line with the warnings in Revelation 6 about the pale horse of the apocalypse, who kills, in part, using the “beasts of the earth” (verse 8). Matthew 24:7 adds that there will be pestilences in our day.

Deuteronomy 28 lists the following curses to come as a result of disobedience to God: “But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee …. The Lord shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest to possess it. The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption [chronic, degenerative diseases such as aids], and with a fever, and with an inflammation [malaria or communicative diseases such as influenzas], and with an extreme burning … with the botch of Egypt [elephantiasis], and with the emerods [tumors, cancer, etc.], and with the scab, and with the itch[aggravated psoriasis and other nutrient-deficiency diseases such as scurvy, rickets, etc.], whereof thou canst not be healed [incurable or drug-resistant diseases] … with madness [mental illness, insanity] and blindness and astonishment of heart [emotional distresses such as depression]” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 21-22,27-28; request our booklet The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for more details).

We can see the dangers approaching the nations of the world. When this pale horse rides, there will be plagues and diseases like sars and bird flu. While we are not saying h5n1 will be the ultimate fulfillment of the pale horse of the apocalypse, we can say without hesitation and with the full backing of the Bible that disease pandemics are coming. How serious are these end-time curses? “And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened”(Matthew 24:22).

When we look at 40 million deaths as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic, we should see how helpless mankind really is; the world is not prepared for an outbreak of h5n1. Men look at anti-viral drugs, vaccines, and the advances of modern medicine as saviors, but the reality is that we are so helpless, there would be no flesh left on the Earth without God’s intervention.

Believe it or not, though, this is a message of hope—the only message of hope anyone can offer. If we seek God “while he may be found,” He will protect us from disease, from terrorism—from every modern threat there is (Isaiah 55:6). Today, He is giving us a warning that we heed by repenting. But do you know what repentance is?

In Volume 1 of his autobiography, Herbert W. Armstrong wrote: “I was never converted until I was brought to the place where I realized my own nothingness, and God’s all-encompassing greatness—until I felt completely whipped, defeated. When I came to consider myself as a worthless burned-out ‘hunk of human junk’ not even worth throwing on the junk-pile of human derelicts, truly remorseful for having imagined I was a ‘somebody’—completely and totally and bitterly sorry for the direction I had traveled and the things I had done—really and truly repentant ….”

That type of repentance will bring God into your life! God tells us in Psalm 91 that if He is our refuge and our fortress, we will not need to fear terrorism or pestilence; He can protect us from global flu pandemics as well: “A thousand shall fall at thy side, And ten thousand at thy right hand; But it shall not come nigh thee” (Psalms 91:7).