The fear of bird flu is a far more widespread condition than the disease itself. Rarely will a week pass without a story of the virus reaching some hitherto untouched part of Asia, or without more warnings of a global outbreak. Any examination of how serious the bird flu threat really is should start with the numbers. There's no doubt it's been devastating for our feathered friends; hundreds of millions of chickens, ducks and migratory birds have flown this coop we call Earth due to the disease and associated culls. But since the current outbreak of the particularly potent H5N1 strain began about five years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed less than 400 human cases, 234 of which have been fatal. That gives the disease a fatality rate of about 60 per cent, which is high, but considering most of the people affected lived in parts of Asia and Africa with minimal or nonexistent health-care facilities, not that startling. The WHO also notes that nearly all transmission of H5N1 has occurred in or around rural households with free-roaming poultry flocks. In other words, unless you're raising your own dinner, your chances of contracting avian influenza are next to nothing. Furthermore, the disease is not easily passed from birds to humans and scientists are still at a loss to explain why many people coming into contact with the virus are not infected. Consider a couple of other facts: there are more cases of leprosy and bubonic plague than of bird flu in Asia and Africa, and year after year, traffic accidents, or measles even, kill far more people than H5N1 in most of the countries it has struck. If this is the case, why are governments, scientists and pharmaceutical firms lavishing billions of dollars on a B-grade hazard? Well, the number of HN51 cases continues to climb steadily and the WHO defines the risk of a pandemic as 'serious'. There's also no shortage of doomsayers such as viral expert Robert Webster, the first scientist to connect the dots between bird flu and humans. Webster has gone on record as saying he's stockpiled three months of food and water to wait out a bird flu plague that's just around the corner, and that H5N1 will soon turn up in pigs, taking it a step closer to human-to-human transmission. Equally foreboding is chief United Nations avian flu co-ordinator David Nabarro, who soon after assuming his position argued the disease is as large a threat as Aids and could kill 150 million people. The pharmaceutical firms enjoying record sales of vaccines such as Tamiflu are obviously not inclined to disabuse the scientific community of notions such as these. Avian flu could mutate to become as deadly as the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed between 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent of the world's population, but many scientists remain unconvinced. More than a few respected voices have called for cooler heads to prevail, including the WHO's Robert Brown, who has remarked that rumours about avian influenza have mutated faster than H5N1 itself and that the media tends to focus on worst-case scenarios. Jeremy Farrar, a scientist who spent time on the front lines of the bird flu battle at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, has also hypothesised that a pandemic will 'never happen' since, given its limited virulence and reach so far, there are apparently weaknesses inherent in the virus. For any discerning hypochondriac, there are plenty of better diseases to choose from.