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Next Killer Flu
OCTOBER 2005
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In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen



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    Photographer Lynn Johnson and I worked together in Vietnam, and it was a wonderful collaboration. She listened to my interviews, I watched her shoot, and we joined forces to appeal to our government minder and local officials for the access we needed. Lynn's photography needs—and her gentle persistence—enriched my reporting. I could easily have spent my time talking to officials, doctors, and scientists, but she needed to get up close with the ordinary people—patients, families, farmers—affected by this disease. What I learned by watching and talking to them helped bring life and humanity to my story.
    Vietnam has been fairly open about its avian flu problem, but some local officials still want to hide their troubles from prying foreigners. A low point came on our first weekend in the country, when a provincial animal health official sat us down at a long conference table under a portrait of Ho Chi Minh and offered us shots of brandy to toast the Vietnamese New Year. Then he lied to us, with a broad smile. We knew at least one person had recently died of bird flu in his province, and that the poultry outbreak was raging. No, he said, no one had died, and the disease was under control in birds. He took us to the gate of a farm and told us we couldn't go further; he let us look in the window of a lab that supposedly tested poultry blood samples for flu virus but said it was closed for the weekend. Then he was gone. Lynn and I were afraid that this was the way the whole trip would go—endless stonewalling.
    Like any journalist, I saw myself as just an observer. It never occurred to me that I might become part of the story. But on our first day in Hong Kong, the man in charge of keeping bird flu out of the farms called me and, with old-school British good manners, told me he didn't want us visiting any chicken farms in Hong Kong. We had just come from seeing poultry markets and farms in Vietnam, and the bird flu virus could have traveled with us, on our clothes or shoes. Hong Kong has worked hard to keep the disease out, he said, and "it would be a bit of a shame, really," if we infected the chickens and caused an outbreak. 
    Almost on cue, I started to feel feverish, and I wondered whether I was about to become the Typhoid Mary of bird flu. By the next morning, though, I felt fine—I had probably picked up some milder bug along the way—and Hong Kong was none the worse for our visit.  
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