Move over Sars, you're so 2003. Look out swine flu, there's a new virus in town. It's bird flu. Not H5N1, the bird flu from 2002 that claimed 300 lives, but a new one called H7N9.

Luckily for us, the more Hs in the name, the worse the influenza virus is at targeting human cells. This new bird flu prefers duck intestines, not human lung tissue.

But this "new" bird flu really isn't that new. It's been floating around among Asian bird populations for a long time. Interestingly, it doesn't make birds very sick, so it's hard to detect in bird populations and poultry markets.

What's new about this bird flu is that it has spread to humans. The world has seen about a dozen deaths, as well as a few patients who responded to treatment with what has become the standard antiviral, Tamiflu. There hasn't been any sign of drug resistance yet and, even more crucially, no evidence of person-to-person spread. That last concept is key, because as long as the spread is only from poultry to humans, quarantine is possible. Once a disease starts spreading person-to-person, however, we're all just one aeroplane flight away from possible exposure.


For now the best China can do is identify, test and isolate patients with fever, cough and shortness of breath; destroy bird flocks that test positive; and then share the information with the rest of the world. For the rest of us, it's business as usual.

My parting reminder is for all of us to concentrate on the little things we can change, like getting flu vaccinations or quitting smoking. Seasonal flu kills about 400 New Zealanders a year. And smoking kills an estimated 5000 Kiwis a year. Not to mention the 25 per cent of long-term smokers that end up with the chronic lung disease emphysema.

If you want to worry about something, it should be the ciggies, not the birdies.