Monday, October 03, 2005

The Great 2006 Avian Flu Epidemic?

I've been worried about a massive outbreak of Avian bird flu recently. It's been a long time since we've have a pandemic--too long a time. Then I read this story from the Telegraph (via: Acyyx).
Up to 150 million people could die in a global avian flu pandemic if action is not taken to prevent it being transferred from human to human, the United Nations has warned.

Dr David Nabarro of the Geneva-based World Health Organisation said preparations for an expected mutation of the virus enabling it to spread from human to human must be carried out.

"I am almost certain there will be another pandemic soon," Mr Nabarro added.

Dozens of people have died from the virus, mainly in Asia, after it was transferred from birds to humans. So far, there have been no reports of it spreading between humans.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has asked Mr Nabarro to head up a worldwide drive to contain the current bird flu pandemic and prepare for its possible jump to humans.

If the virus spreads among humans, the quality of the world response will determine whether it ends up killing five million or as many as 150 million, Mr Nabarro added.

The last flu pandemic, which broke in 1918 at the end of the First World War, killed more than 40 million people.

Mr Nabarro warned it seemed very likely the H5N1 bird flu virus will soon change into a variant able to be transmitted among humans and it would be a big mistake to ignore that danger.

Some governments and international organizations have already started joining forces to begin preparations.

Millions of birds have been destroyed, mainly in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, but the virus has also been found in birds in Russia and Europe.

But once humans have caught it, the virus has shown it has the power to kill one out of every two people it infects.

Until now, the effort to contain the spread of the virus among birds and prepare for a possible shift to humans has been led by the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation and the WHO.

Mr Nabarro said he would head a new UN system-wide office in New York that would begin mobilising governments, international agencies, health workers and the pharmaceutical industry.

Once the virus began spreading among humans, it would be only a matter of weeks before a pandemic was underway, so a rapid response would be crucial, he said.

Two challenges will be governments' traditional desire to ignore threats until they become real dangers, and their reluctance to publicly admit they have a problem once the disease starts spreading, he added.

A vaccine would be the best way to counter the virus and several drug firms around the world are working on one. But production is slow and the immunisation must match the strain that is actually infecting people, so it is not possible to make them up before a new strain emerges.
It's been time for the government to get serious about this for a long time. Some steps to prevent the spread:

Get working on a vaccine, like, yesterday. If there's something to throw government money at, it's this kind of national, indeed international, threat. This is exactly what the government is for--the protection of it's people from foreign invasions, whether by land, sea, air, or virus.

Get serious about protecting the borders. If a pandemic breaks out, do we have the resources available to close the borders? We can't do it now, so I can't imagine we'll be able to do it then unless we get serious about border protection. Right now the US-Mexico border is a joke. And crossing the US-Canada border can't be that much more difficult, especially if you want to hike in.

Start developing a plan on how to deal with millions of sick and dying: Morbid, I know, but necessary. Maybe we'll dodge the bullet, but bullet-dodging is risky business with low odds the dodger. What if the flu strikes? What will you do? Do you have a plan? A place to go? Plans for the family? For your property? What will the federal government do once the flu hits? Is there a strong medical plan? A strong military plan (there may be a role for it to play). How about state and local governments (though I don't know how much local governments can do in this case, except cooperate hand-in-glove with higher authorities)?

Learn from the past: Ok, think about it. New Orleans was caught out with Hurricane Katrina on a colossal number of levels. Not only was the government unprepared, but the everyday guy on the street was unprepared. On the governmental side, everyone (in the private sector, too) knew that the Big One was coming sooner or later, and that the Big Easy was asking for a bruising, but that didn't keep state and local governments from diverting federal money earmarked for levy-strengthening, etc., from being diverted and mis-spent. In a sense, the Feds did what they could beforehand, and state and local officials dropped the ball--and lost the city. In the case of the flu, the Feds have got to step up and prevent problems before they happen. I know this is hard in a national bureaucracy that oftentimes works through state and local bureaucracies, but there's got to be a way to do it, and a way to do it FAST.

Take responsibility for you and yours: Like I mentioned above, regardless of what the government does, it's not going to be the panecea, literally or figuratively. Each of us needs to develop a plan to protect ourselves and our families, property, etc. If this means stocking up on stuff and holing our family up in the house, or moving into the hills, or whatever, then that's what it means. We can't just sit around like sheep waiting for the government to tell us what to do. In many cases, the government will likely drop the ball, and it will be upon us to provide for ourselves.

I know this all sounds eschatalogical and all, but, hey, these pandemics sweep the globe with alarming regularity. Ever heard of the Black Death? How about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. This source compares each of those plagues with the other, as well as with WW1, and has this to say: "the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI), at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351." In case you were wondering, the bubonic plague, which was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death, had a mortality rate of 30-75% and killed, in some cases, 90% of a local population (see more below). Two other forms of the Black Death--The pneumonic plague and the septicemic plague--had much higher rates of mortaility--90-95% and near 100% respectively. Although the latter two forms, the last particularly, were rare, one can imagine that Europe was not a nice place to live, or die, mid way through the 14th century.

At the expense of rambling, Wikipedia has a lot of cogent information that deserves attention:

Estimates of the demographic impact of plague in Asia are based on both population figures during this time and estimates of the disease's toll on population centers. The initial outbreak of plague in the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334 claimed up to 90 percent of the population, an estimated five million people. During 1353–54, outbreaks in eight distinct areas throughout the Mongol/Chinese empires may have caused the death of two-thirds of China's population, often yielding an estimate of 25 million deaths.

It is estimated that between one-third and one-half of the European population died from the outbreak between 1348 and 1350. As many as 25% of all villages were depopulated, mostly the smaller communities, as the few survivors fled to larger towns and cities. The Black Death hit the culture of towns and cities disproportionately hard; some rural areas, for example, Eastern Poland and Lithuania, were so isolated that the plague made little progress. Cities were the worst off because of the population densities and close living quarters making disease transmission easier.

The precise demographic impact of the disease in the Middle East is impossible to calculate. Mortality was particularly high in rural areas, including significant areas of Palestine and Syria. Many surviving rural people fled, leaving their fields and crops, and entire rural provinces are recorded as being totally depopulated. Surviving records in some cities reveal a devastating number of deaths. The 1348 outbreak in Gaza left an estimated 10,000 people dead, while Aleppo recorded a death rate of 500 a day during the same year. In Damascus, at the disease's peak in September and October 1348, a thousand deaths were recorded every day, with overall mortality estimated at between 25 and 38 percent. Syria lost a total of 400,000 people by the time the epidemic subsided in March 1349. In contrast to some higher mortality estimates in Asia and Europe, scholars believe the mortality rate in the Middle East was less than one-third of the total population, with higher rates in selected areas.

Anyway, that's a lot to process. I'm not going to make any attempt to sum this all up, because I'm the only person who reads what I write. Anyway, time for me to take some action and perpare for the eventual outbreak.