In the summer of 1999, I was working for a business publication covering the outdoor sports industry. At the time, I was assigned to write an article on the preparations being made by vendors in that field for the impending havoc that would be wreaked upon mankind by the "Y2K bug." That, you'll recall, was the computer glitch caused by the dating limitations of early PCs. The fear was that, as the calendar turned to 01-01-00, the computer clock would interpret the date as 100 years earlier, causing previously saved data to vanish. No one knew for sure how the infrastructure, including banks, utilities, and telecommunications companies, would be affected.
The Y2K concerns spawned a still-present multibillion dollar industry devoted to fixing the 00 problem and reinforcing the integrity of computer and database systems. (In the outdoor industry, some enterprising vendors made a handsome profit selling "Y2K Survival Kits," packed with everything one would need to fend off the hordes of marauding refugees that survived the resulting Armageddon.)
Of course, January 1, 2000, came and went with almost no interruption of services, leading to the debate that either a) the problem was a minor one that was exaggerated to the point of panic, or b) that early action prevented what could have been a worldwide catastrophe.
No doubt both points were valid. While the concern was very real, the panic proved to be overblown. We don't know what might have happened, but it's probably best that we didn't get a chance to find out.
By the same token, concern over the H5N1 avian influenza virus, or "avian flu," has been in the headlines lately-and has been fodder for countless editorial cartoons and late-night talk show jokes. But as Ron Schachter writes (page 38), colleges and universities are taking the threat seriously.
Higher education institutions have had to deal with a variety of health crisis concerns over the years, including meningitis, Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and West Nile Virus. Like those, avian flu is a real concern. In fact, as I write this, new cases of the disease have surfaced in Indonesia, where the death toll stands at 61. The World Health Organization has noted that the H5N1 strain is known to have infected 264 people in 10 countries since 2003, killing 158 of them.
The United States, so far, has been fortunate. While officials in New Jersey confirm that a mild form of bird flu has been detected in poultry in their state, no human cases have been reported. But some health experts believe the potential is there.
According to a recent article on Bloomberg.com, "the new infections provide chances for H5N1 to mutate into a form more dangerous to people. Millions could die if it mutates and begins spreading easily between people, sparking a pandemic."
Or not. State agencies across the country are formulating their own action plans to protect the public. We don't know for sure what might happen, but it's best not to get the chance to find out.
While avian flu may well prove to be the new Y2K bug, colleges and universities are wise to at least have a plan to deal with it and other health crises. In cases such as these, it's best to heed Ben Franklin's advice that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Write to Tim Goral at firstname.lastname@example.org.