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Module 5: Avian Flu

“Year of the Rooster”

“You have to be kidding,” says Maxine, looking about the spartan terminal of Malkinagrad International Airport. In the far corner, next to the tinted window overlooking their downed aircraft, a set of dangling wires marks the place where a fluorescent bulb once shone. The fixture’s glass cover is propped against the wall, but no workman’s ladder indicates that the light will be replaced anytime soon. Somewhere down the long hall towards baggage claim, she thinks she can hear a siren. “How long are we here for?”

“That depends on how fast this quarantine is resolved,” says Mrs. K, looking up from her cell phone, before the voice on the other end evidently returns. “Yes . . .,” she replies, nodding pensively, “. . . yes . . . no, we have all our luggage . . . I’m sorry, can you wait a moment?” Holding the phone awkwardly in one hand, she rifles through her purse for a pen and checkbook, roughly opening a page while talking into the receiver. She quickly takes down a number as a voice prattles away on the phone’s speaker. “Yes,” she replies, “I understand . . . tomorrow, alright. Thank you.” Putting the phone down, she turns to address her students. “That was the Pierpont representative – there’s no way we can get out of here before tomorrow, so they’ve arranged for us to stay at the embassy hotel across the street from the pharmaceutical district where the company has its installation here. I’m supposed to call them in the morning for an update on getting to Paris before Thursday.”

A rumbling sounds from outside and, turning to the waiting area’s numerous southward-facing windows, they see their plane soar back into the deepening gloom over the horizon. Though the quick approach of twilight makes it difficult to see clearly across the tarmac, it appears that there are no other aircraft currently parked at the landing strip. For better or worse, they’re stuck in Malkinagrad for the night.

“There’s one other thing,” says Mrs. K, as her students turn anxiously towards her. “I don’t want to alarm you, but the Pierpont representative informed me that there was an outbreak of avian influenza in a poultry market a few blocks from the pharmaceutical district last week. There weren’t any human cases reported, but, just to be safe, she suggested that we try and stay inside the hotel as much as possible.”

Angelica’s eyes bulge. “We’re trapped in nowhere and there’s an outbreak of an incurable virus?”

“Just stop,” grumbles Lang, stuffing a newspaper from the plane ride into his knapsack. “There’s nothing we can do, and complaining won’t make the situation any better.”

“Thanks,” she snaps, and the two students avoid eye contact for the next few minutes while following Mrs. K to the tiny ground transport desk. Fallon, looking distractedly about the run-down facility, wonders how many flights actually land here in a week. Fifty? Ten? None? Everyone else in the building appears to be an airline employee or one of the other passengers on their own flight. By all indications, Malkinagrad International Airport is a lonely place. At the ground transportation desk, Mrs. K calls the shuttle service for the hotel while her students slump among their luggage near the exit.

“I wonder how long we’ll be here,” wonders Maxine, checking that her wallet is still safely stowed inside her purse. “Maybe the hotel will have internet access . . . I bet this whole situation is all over CNN.”

“I brought my laptop,” says Fallon, hoping that this is his opportunity to redeem himself in Maxine’s eyes, “maybe there’s wireless internet access.”

“Yeah, as I recall, you almost got us kicked out of RDU for not taking it out of your bag after you caused that scare with your dirty shirt.” She sighs, and he concedes defeat, at least for now.

Angelica, on the other side of the counter, turns to Lang. “Alright, I’m sorry I snapped at you, but I don’t think you realize how rude you are sometimes. I don’t understand how someone can be so artistic but so disinterested in other people.”

Lang, slightly surprised, looks up from his book, fumbling for a reply. “I . . . I hate traveling, it’s making me stressed.” He looks down. “Um . . . I’m sorry too.” As if to end the awkward exchange, the Pierpont shuttle pulls up outside the baggage claim, spraying brown ice over the sidewalk.

“Here we go,” says Mrs. K, “the hotel isn’t far from here.” She grabs her suitcase, waving her hand for the students to hurry up and follow her to the waiting vehicle.


Compared to the airport, the hotel is surprisingly luxurious – probably an indication of where Pierpont’s vast pharmaceutical wealth has been distributed in this beleaguered country. The quiet chamber music playing in the lobby almost drowns out the icy wind outside, and the trickling of water from the fountain beside the reception desk adds to the tranquility of the scene. Fortunately, the hotel has internet access on a computer console in the lobby, and Fallon busily clicks through news sites while Maxine reads anxiously over this shoulder.

“It looks like they’re still resolving things,” he says, scanning a BBC article posted only hours ago, “they don’t even know what this stuff was on the flight.” He continues scrolling down the page. “Apparently Paris won’t allow any flights from New York to land until the lab tests come back. Looks like we’re stuck.”

Maxine rolls her eyes. “Great. Just great.”

Fallon clicks on another news link. “Well there’s some good news at least. It looks like all the poultry that Mrs. K was talking about earlier are being incinerated as a safety precaution – so at least we’re safe there.”

“You think so?” says Maxine. “I wonder where the virus came from. I mean, it had to get into the population somehow – my guess is that there are probably still infected ducks or something out there. Besides, I wonder how they got all the poultry farmers to agree to this . . . probably they didn’t have much choice, even if it meant their year’s stock is gone.”

“Yeah . . .” replies Fallon, trying to think of something intelligent to say in response, and coming up with nothing. Instead, he continues to search the news sites, until Mrs. K approaches them, Angelica and Lang following closely behind.

“Alright, I just got off the phone with the Pierpont officials here,” she says. “Since we’re going to be stuck here for at least another day, they offered to take us on a tour of the facility across the street. A representative is going to meet us at nine tomorrow morning. I suggest you all go get some sleep, or you’re going to have horrible jetlag tomorrow.”

“I guess going outside is out of the question?” asks Angelica. “With this flu incident and all?”

“We were just reading about it online,” says Fallon, “it looks like they’re destroying all the animals in the market.”

“I think they should destroy all the wild birds, too,” says Maxine. “That’s probably how it spread after all.”

“You think so?” says Lang. “I thought avian flu came from Asia – you really think a sick bird flew all the way from Hong Kong to here? Wouldn’t having avian flu make it harder for the bird to fly?”

“Oh . . . maybe,” thinks Maxine. “But then how did the virus get here?”

“Well, whatever the answer is, I want you all to stay in the hotel,” says Mrs. K. “I don’t want to get into trouble with your parents for leading you around a quarantined city.” She yawns, quickly covering her mouth. “Alright, I’m going to bed. Everyone needs to be in the lobby at 8:45. Goodnight.” The four students watch her go, climbing the wide stairway in the lobby to the mezzanine where the elevators lead to the guest rooms.

“Did you notice that she slept through the entire flight?” asks Angelica. “And she’s still exhausted. Strange.”

“Yeah,” says Maxine. “Maybe she’s coming down with something.” Remembering their recent conversation, she stops, and the others quickly pick up on the implication. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” she finally adds. “Anyway, I’m going too. Goodnight.”

Maxine quickly climbs the stairs, almost tripping twice, while the others wait quietly beside the fountain, the music continuing placidly in the background.

1. How likely is it that avian flu would be spread through migratory wild birds? What is evidence for and against this hypothesis?
2. Is culling the best solution for eliminating the risk of human infection? What are some obstacles to this kind of solution?
3. What kinds of conditions are required for humans to be infected with avian flu? In how much danger are our protagonists if they go outside?
4. If there were another report of bird flu, what steps should be taken to respond to the threat?