A few days ago I suggested that since Christmas we'd been surfing a rising wave of news about H5N1. Like influenza itself, flu news goes through waves; after every crest, a trough follows.
A survey of my usual sources suggests we're still very much in a trough. The biggest story today seems to be the news that pigeons probably don't carry the virus. We have no new human cases, and no news about earlier cases like the vet who died mysteriously in India after culling chickens.
Many of us, I suspect, follow H5N1 because it's provided a good, suspenseful narrative. The cases have been few, so we can often learn the names and backgrounds of the victims. The virus has moved rapidly and surprisingly, leaping from Egypt to Nigeria. Even its pauses have surprised: Who would have thought H5N1 would kill two people in northern Iraq (and maybe a third in the middle of the country), and then drop out of sight?
The humans involved have contributed to the narrative: the hapless Indonesians, the methodical Vietnamese, the sometimes-mysterious Chinese, the stoic French. Politicians everywhere have memorized their key line: "No need to panic. Please pass the chicken."
But narrative demands ever-increasing anxiety, news of fresh disasters that heighten suspense before the inevitable announcement (whether from Jakarta or Mumbai or Los Angeles) that a cluster of cases are inarguably human-to-human.
That climactic point, by the rules of narrative, provides a natural conclusion to Volume I. Volume II then follows the pandemic itself, perhaps rounding out the trilogy with a volume on the post-pandemic world.
Viruses, however, don't much care about what humans find entertaining. They move to their own music.
When infections drop off, so does our attention. An omniscient narrator might be able to tell us: "Little did the humans know that the virus was now..." —and thereby hold our interest. But we're not omniscient, and other events soon distract us.
Rather than simply absorb the latest worrisome news, then, this might be a good time to pause and reflect—to read some of the H5N1 Special Reports, to browse through the scientific articles and the pandemic plans I've linked to. (And send me more!)
At some point the next wave will come along, as sudden and unexpected as the deaths in the Kocyigit family were last January. It could be a human death in Romania, or H5N1-positive snow geese right here in the Fraser River delta south of Vancouver. Maybe the climactic last chapter of Volume I will feature a Hong Kong family who collapse with H5N1 in Santa Barbara, the day after they've passed through Los Angeles International. It could happen tonight, or next month, or never.
Of course I'll continue to monitor the situation, but I don't expect as many news stories as we've seen in a typical day over the past two or three months. When the volume of stories picks up, I'll know we're out of the trough.