October 05, 2005
Avian Flu Awareness
Over the last year and a half, there have been outbreaks in eight Asian counties of a deadly virus known as avian flu. It has resulted in the deaths of more than 100 million birds, some of which were culled in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading further. While avian flu mainly affects poultry, scientists worry that it is capable of mutating into a form that infects and spreads between humans. If this were to happen, and if it were not immediately contained, the consequences could be disastrous.
During the influenza pandemic of 1918, [another strain of flu] was estimated to have killed 1–2% of everyone who got it, half of whom were 20–40 years old and otherwise healthy. 50–100 million people died worldwide and 675,000 died in the US, at a time when the world population was a third of what it is today. It is not possible to predict what it would be like the next time.
Despite the threat, which public health experts have been warning about for years, the White House and Congressional Republicans have several times tried to cut funding for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the main US agency which would prepare for and respond to an outbreak of avian flu. (The most recent cut was proposed by House Republicans just after Katrina.)
Yesterday, the administration stumbled again, when Bush announced that he would use the army to enforce quarantine zones in the case of an outbreak. This made international news in part because the President has not educated the American public about the threat, but suddenly started talking about calling out the army.
He may have surprised people since he just learned about it himself. It seems that after a closed door briefing last week, the Administration is finally starting to wake up to the threat, reports the New York Times.
"I take this issue very seriously," Bush said [in a news conference yesterday]. "The people of the country ought to rest assured that we're doing everything we can."
But after the administration's widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, such assurances are no longer enough, several Democratic senators said.
"'Trust us' is not something the administration can say after Katrina," Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said in an interview. "I don't think Congress is in a mood to trust. We want plans. We want specific goals and procedures we're going to take to prepare for this."
So far, Harkin said, the administration has provided neither, despite requests from Congress.
[Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael] Leavitt acknowledged in an interview that the United States was not prepared for a pandemic flu outbreak.
While the Administration fumbles, concerned individuals are doing what they can to educate the public. Some have created a new collaborative Web site which is designed to share information about avian flu. It’s called the Flu Wiki, and it uses the same technology as the Wikipedia, the collaborative encyclopedia that is rapidly becoming one of the best available reference works.
Flu Wiki’s creators and others are participating in Pandemic Flu Awareness Week. It’s a good time to learn about preparedness, and if you are a subject matter expert, an excellent time to contribute to this community resource. And with enough pressure, the government may come up with a plan as well.
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