Our leaders aren’t doing enough about avian flu
When Bill Frist, M.D., Senate majority leader, tells the Washington Times that the bird flu virus "poses an immense potential threat to American civilization," you know something's up.
What are the odds of a pandemic? Two weeks ago, the United Nations' bird flu czar predicted up to 150 million human deaths. He said we must appeal "to people's recognition that we're dealing here with world survival issues -- or the survival of the world as we know it." Redlener (associate dean of Columbia University's School of Public Health and director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness) recently put the figure at up to a billion deaths worldwide. And the Centers for Disease Control Director said recently, "Most experts are saying that it's not really a question of if; it's a question of when." It will change the world as we know it, affecting cultures, political and economic systems.
What is our government doing to protect us? According to a report by the Trust for America's Health (TAH), not nearly enough. U.S. pandemic planning efforts lag well behind those of the U.K. and Canada. The failure to establish a cohesive, rapid, and transparent U.S. pandemic strategy could put Americans at risk. The World Health Organization estimates that 25 percent of the population could become infected; other scientists have estimated 50 percent. At a 25 percent contraction rate, 67 million could become infected. With the current Tamiflu order, more than 61.5 million Americans who might be infected would not receive antiviral medication. If we order more, it would not be available until 2007.
Many of those not rapidly killed by the virus will need hospitalization. Millions of patients could overwhelm hospital capacity nationwide. According to the American Hospital Association, there were only 965,256 staffed hospital beds in registered hospitals in 2003. TAH figures for Hawaii project 296,651 cases, with 2,446 people dead and 10,571 hospitalized. An epidemiologist with the state Department of Health told me that a draft pandemic response plan is still "under discussion," but will probably be finished by November. However, to my knowledge, there has been no public outreach. WHO stated, "in order to ensure broad commitment for the plan, it is essential to involve the community in the planning process."
What caused this threat? Intensive farming practices and inadequate disease control seem to be the main factors behind the outbreak. WHO says direct contact with infected poultry, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their feces, is considered the main route of human infection. Exposure is considered most likely during slaughter, de-feathering, butchering and preparation of poultry for cooking. This disease started in Asia, but it could happen here due to the intensive factory farming methods of agribusiness.
Nature is trying to tell us something. Will we listen?
Pam Davis lives in Honolulu.