Education crucial on avian flu issue – WP editorial

PUBLIC fears about contracting avian flu have prompted two major agricultural fairs to cancel this year’s bird displays and shows, citing a potential adverse effect on attendance.

Though organizers at Farmfair International in Edmonton and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto responded to a difficult situation, they may inadvertently have sent the wrong message through these cancellations.

The deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu has never been found in Canada, but has killed about 60 people in Asia. As has been widely reported in all media, public health officials fear that if the disease spreads and mutates into a form that passes easily from human to human, it could kill millions of people.

Caution and strict control measures are essential. There is no question of that. But the show cancellations suggest there is real cause for the public to be concerned about contact with Canadian poulty. Health experts flatly reject that idea.

It is the same problem every organization and government creates when they act based on the precautionary principal that everything has to be proven 100 percent safe before it can be permitted.

The board of directors of Edmonton’s Farmfair said it could not determine there was zero percent risk presented by poultry at the show, hence the cancellation of that particular element.

However, they also could not guarantee zero percent risk of parking lot mishaps. Nor should they have to.

The public does not ask for those types of assurances because most recognize there is a measure of risk in most things we do. But on public health and food safety matters in particular, the public has become wary.

That makes it even more important to use every opportunity available to inform the public of real risks and real safeguards regarding food safety.

The effect on show attendance without cancellation of the poultry shows is impossible to calculate.

But if we learned anything from the BSE crisis, it is that health concerns can quickly grow out of proportion to the risks when governments and organizations validate public fears by announcing control measures beyond those deemed necessary by experts.

It is a case of risk assessment being guided by fear rather than science.

In efforts to correct public misconceptions that grow out of such actions, a concerted public awareness campaign is in order.

Now that organizers of Farmfair and the Royal have cancelled their poultry events, they should replace them with displays and information on Canadian poultry and on avian flu, including facts on the risks people face by coming into contact with birds.

The Royal, to its credit, has already announced it is doing that.

As prime minister Paul Martin correctly pointed out last week, “communication is as important as remedies if public panic is to be avoided.”

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