Saturday, October 08, 2005

Doctor Heal Thyself!

Will the Bush administration cronyism and incompetence leave Americans unprotected if a strain of pandemic avian flu spreads here?

The question and the reality it carries are creating grave concerns in Washington and in official circles in recent days. President Bush met with vaccine makers and medical professionals Friday to discuss the ramifications and response strategies should pandemic flu come to the United States. Studies conducted by experts have indicated that a worst-case scenario would mean nearly 1.9 million Americans could die and 8.5 million could find themselves hospitalized if the illness strikes the US. The cost of treating the sick is estimated at around $450 billion.

The meeting on Friday revealed that the country is ill prepared if the pandemic should begin to spread here. Most likely coming from Asia. The virus has devastated bird populations in a number of Asian countries. Because of this is has been deemed the “avian flu”. Approximately 116 cases of this strain of avian flue virus have been transferred to humans in Asia making them ill and killing 6 out of every 10 patients who’s contracted the illness. Most all of these people, it is believed, had direct contact with infected birds. Doctors predict that the virus will, at some point, be able to replicate itself in humans and begin to be passed directly between humans triggering human epidemics. When this happens it chances for spreading worldwide are likely.

All of this talk has made government leaders and the medical community nervous. There has been a general lack of planning or preparation for such a pandemic. The country lacks the necessary vaccine, with apparently only enough for about 2% of the population at this time. Most medical experts seem to believe that as many as 40% of the population could contract the virus if there were a sever outbreak in this country. The best preventive scenario calls for everyone in the country to be vaccinated as soon as possible. The government has hopes that 600 million doses will be produced, but it is questionable whether this can be done quickly enough.

In the wake of the gulf coast hurricanes and the government’s continued problems responding to that crisis due to cronyism, incompetent and turf wars within FEMA and Department of Homeland Security most people should be concerned about their government’ s ability to respond to a flu pandemic like this if it should happen in this country. The feeling of insecurity is even more enhanced by the track record this administration has running the war in Iraq and alleged illegality and malfeasance by top officials of the administration or Republican leaders in the congress filling the news.

American drug companies face a two-fold problem when it comes to making the necessary amount of flu vaccine needed to deal with a pandemic type outbreak here. Remember the goal is “universal” vaccination of the entire population. One problem is outdated methods of production, which presently would take too long to produce the require number of doses needed to vaccinate the population prior to the arrival of the virus. The second reasons concerns financial incentives to make the vaccine and be assured that it will be profitable for the drug company even if the vaccine should end up not being widely used should the outbreak end up not being that severe. But, good judgment dictates that you must prepare for the worst-case scenario when dealing with the potential pandemic of this nature.

America has had three major pandemic type flu outbreaks since 1900. In 1958 and 1968 outbreaks killed 70,000 and 34,000 people respectfully. But, the best known outbreak of pandemic flu affecting America happening between 1918 and 1919. That outbreak, commonly called The "Spanish flu", is estimated to have killed between 25 million and 50 million people worldwide including 675,000 Americans. Twenty-eight percent of Americans were affected by the outbreak. The flu spread worldwide quickly and after 18 months of devastating the world’s populations it vanished. This all happened as World War I was being fought in Europe. Scientists have been studying Spanish Flu and now believe that the 1918 virus, like the present day virus, originally transferred from birds to humans. Thus the concern it could be happening again.

Because it is probably impossible to ramp up production of the vaccine fast enough to immediately inoculate everybody in America. The government is now faced with prioritizing who should get the vaccine that IS available. The government must quickly figure this out. Currently the priority looks something like this: Health workers, elderly, severely ill, pregnant women, aids patients, police, firefighters, government leaders, the military and then the rest of us. Also local governments will have to be prepared to quarantine those becoming ill and be able to enforce these quarantines. This may be the best way to control the flu from spreading once it hits given the lack of vaccine. Lack of enough vaccine could cause rioting and civil unrest at vaccination centers and hospitals if wide spread outbreaks begin to cause any panic amongst the population. Hospitals could be overwhelmed with the sick. One other problem is who will be the person put in charge of this enormous effort of dealing with the pandemic. Now the responsibility is spread among a number of government agencies and officials.

We certainly can pray that we don’t get the mixed messages that have so prominently been the status quo with this current government and recent national disasters. Because under the worse case scenario this type of a flu pandemic could be historical in porportion to all previous national catastrophes.

How will you know when the pandemic is beginning? Listen for news reports of new outbreaks of the flu in different locations. These reports will probably become more frequent and report larger numbers of suspected cases. The cases most likely would be in Asia, but given the ease of travel in this day and age the virus could be carried anywhere. The only obstacle now stopping a wide spread outbreaks is that the virus is not able to pass directly between humans, only from birds to humans. Scientists believe it is only a matter of time before human-to-human transmission will begin to occur. Then the possibility of the pandemic becomes extremely likely.

We can hope the Bush administration will have figured out a responsible plan to deal with the pandemic before it happens. But I recommend you make every effort to prepare yourself and your loved ones for the worst. Based on experience, I simply do not have faith that this government will get it right.

1 comment:

  1. It's very likely that the health care infrastructure will be overwhelmed. The number of hospital beds have been going down and we just don't have the staff or the beds to care for thousands of sick, let alone millions. And if there is a panic, oh I don't know let's say from a military enforced quarantine then people who aren't sick may be seeking help from hospitals for fear they may "have it", making an already bad problem worse.