BIRD FLU UPDATE: 2005 - On a Wing and a Prayer
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BIRD FLU UPDATE: 2005 - On a Wing and a Prayer
Two weeks ago a Dr. "Frist" wrote an op-ed in the Washington Times warning that the bird flu virus "poses an immense potential threat to American civilization." A threat to civilization? Who is this guy? This "guy" is Bill Frist, M.D., Majority Leader of the United States Senate.
Senator Frist gave a talk on Bird Flu recently at Harvard Medical School, his alma mater. He described the horrors of 1918. Fifty million dead, killed by a bird flu virus finally sequenced this month in the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world, Nature and Science. Dr Frist asked "How would a nation so greatly moved and touched by the three thousand dead of September 11th react to half a million dead? In 1918 - 1919 the mortality rate was between 2.5 and 5 percent, which seem merciful in comparison to the 55 percent mortality rate of the current Avian flu. In just 18 months, this Avian flu has killed or forced the culling of more than 100 million animals. And now that it has jumped from birds to infect humans in 10 Asian nations, how many human lives will it or another virus like it take? How, then, would a nation greatly moved and touched by three thousand dead, react to five or fifty million dead?"
Or 150 million. Two weeks ago World Health Organization executive director Dr. David Nabarro was appointed the bird flu czar of the United Nations. At the press conference at UN headquarters in New York, Dr. Nabarro predicted as many as 150 million human deaths in the upcoming pandemic arising from bird flu. Progress, he said, will demand appealing "to people's recognition that we're dealing here with world survival issues – or the survival of the world as we know it."
The pandemic is what reportedly keeps our Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt awake. "It's a world-changing event when it occurs," Leavitt said in an interview. "It reaches beyond health. It affects economies, cultures, politics and prosperity - not to mention human life, counted by the millions."
Yeah, but what are the odds of it actually happening? What are the odds that a killer flu virus will spread across the world like a tidal wave, killing millions? This morning it was reported that Secretary Leavitt answered that question. "The burning question is, will there be a human influenza pandemic," he told reporters. "On behalf of the WHO, I can tell you that there will be. The only question is the virulence and rapidity of transmission from human to human." The Director General of the World Health Organization: "there is no disagreement that this is just a matter of time." The Director of the Centers for Disease Control told Newshour with Jim Lehrer last week: "Most experts are saying that it's not really a question of if; it's a question of when." As the Executive Director of the nonprofit Trust for America's Health put it, "This is not a drill. This is not a planning exercise. This is for real."
And finally it's getting a fraction, at least, of the press attention it deserves. "It could kill a billion people worldwide, make ghost towns out of parts of major cities, and there is not enough medicine to fight it. It is called the avian flu." So started the ABC News Primetime special on bird flu on September 15th, 2005. What, now we're up to a BILLION human deaths? Where did they pull that number from? They pulled it from Dr. Irwin Redlener, Associate Dean of Columbia University's School of Public Health and Director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
Within the last month it was the cover story of National Geographic, Business Week and TIME Magazine in Asia. What more attention could one ask for than for our President spending five minutes on it in the Rose Garden, openly musing about putting the military in charge when the pandemic hits. The Washington Post quoted Columbia University's Dr. Redlener calling the president's suggestion an "extraordinarily draconian measure" that would be unnecessary if the nation had "built the capability for rapid vaccine production, ensured a large supply of anti-virals like Tamiflu, and not allowed the degradation of the public health system." "The translation of this, Redlener said, "is martial law in the United States."
Business Week's bird flu cover story "Hot Zone in the Heartland" quoted Department of Homeland Security associate director Dr. Michael Osterholm: "The difference between this and a hurricane is that all 50 states will be affected at the same time," he said. "And this crisis will last a year or more. It will utterly change the world."
So what can we do? Last week was Pandemic Flu Awareness Week, organized by a group of dedicated volunteers who have started Fluwikie.com, an unprecedented collaborative approach to problem-solving in public health, with the express purpose to "help local communities prepare for and perhaps cope with a possible influenza pandemic." We need to prepare within our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, our cities, states and businesses. First, though, we need to educate ourselves. Here is a list of resources to get everyone started:
Department of Homeland Security associate director article in Foreign Affairs: http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20050701faessay84402/michael-t-osterholm/preparing-for-pandemic.html
Watch Dr. Osterholm on video at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars: http://wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.item&news_id=145329
How a pandemic might realistically unfold (I apologize for the broken link in the last issue):
ABCnews Primetime Investigation transcript:
Trust for America's Health report:
Senate majority leader's Harvard Medical School Health Care Policy Seidman Lecture:
 Frist B. The threat of avian flu. Washington Times, September 29,2005.
 Taubenberger JK, et al. 2005. Characterization of the 1918 influenza virus polymerase genes. Nature 437(7060):889.
 Tumpey TM, et al. 2005. Characterization of the reconstructed 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic virus. Science 310(5745):77-80.
 Frist B. Harvard Medical School Health Care Policy Seidman Lecture "Manhattan project for the 21st Century," June 1, 2005.
 Branswell H. 'World as we know it' may be at stake: UN pandemic czar. Canadian Press, October 2, 2005.
 Vieth W. The Health secretary is leading a drive to boost federal efforts, and funding, to prepare for a global outbreak if avian flu mutates. LA Times, October 3, 2005 By Warren Vieth, Times Staff Writer
 Mydans S/ Preparations for biurd flu are urent, Asia is warned. International Herald Tribune, October 11, 2005.
 Jolly L. Start moving on deadly flu. The Sun, March 3, 2005.
 PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer. The Avian Flu Pandemic. October 5, 2005.
 Flu pandemic could kill half million in U.S. Report: America not prepared for large outbreak of disease. Reuters, June 24, 2005.
 Schwartz R, et al. Avian Flu: Is the government ready for an epidemic?Virus Poses Risk of Massive Casualties Around the World. ABC News , September 15th, 2005.
 Branswell H. Avian flu may be the next pandemic. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, September 22, 2005.
 Loven J. Bush considers military role in flu fight. Washington Post, October 4, 2005.
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