As this article in the Washington Post makes clear, there’s probably nothing that can be done to avoid what could turn out to be the most calamitous event in American history; the coming Bird Flu pandemic:
Public health officials preparing to battle what they view as an inevitable influenza pandemic say the world lacks the medical weapons to fight the disease effectively, and will not have them anytime soon.
Public health specialists and manufacturers are working frantically to develop vaccines, drugs, strategies for quarantining and treating the ill, and plans for international cooperation, but these efforts will take years. Meanwhile, the most dangerous strain of influenza to appear in decades—the H5N1 “bird flu” in Asia—is showing up in new populations of birds, and occasionally people, almost by the month, global health officials say.
If the virus were to start spreading in the next year, the world would have only a relative handful of doses of an experimental vaccine to defend against a disease that, history shows, could potentially kill millions. If the vaccine proved effective and every flu vaccine factory in the world started making it, the first doses would not be ready for four months. By then, the pathogen would probably be on every continent.
Am I being an alarmist? Am I overstating the potential for unmitigated disaster?
I wish I was. What the article makes clear and what international health officials have been saying for months is that it is only a matter of time before the strain of flu currently infecting millions of birds mutates into a pathogen not only with the ability to jump from birds to humans, but more catastrophically, a mutation that would enable it to leap from human to human via casual contact.
This would bring about a social and economic catastrophe the likes of which this country has never seen.
Other measures would go well beyond the conventional boundaries of public health: restricting international travel, shutting down transit systems or nationalizing supplies of critical medical equipment, such as surgical masks.
But Osterholm argues that such measures would fall far short. He predicts that a pandemic would cause widespread shutdowns of factories, transportation and other essential industries. To prepare, he says, authorities should identify and stockpile a list of perhaps 100 crucial products and resources that are essential to keep society functioning until the pandemic recedes and the survivors go back to work.
In order to contain the outbreak, the federal government will have to assume enormous powers, ordering the closing of schools, office buildings, factories, malls – anywhere and anyplace that large numbers of people congregate. The simple chore of shopping for food will become a nightmare as strict limits will be placed on the number of people that will be allowed in a store at any one time.
Every time you walk out of your house, you’ll have to think is this trip worth the risk of getting sick?
The strain on the public health system will be overwhelming. Hospitals will be filled to capacity. Workers on the front line of the epidemic – doctors, nurses, and other health care workers – will be hardest hit straining the ability of hospitals to deliver even basic services.
How do we know this? Because the US and the rest of the world went through a flu pandemic before; the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918. That worldwide calamity killed more than 30 million people, 675,000 in the United States alone. By contrast, on average 36,000 deaths are attributed to flu each year in the United States.
Given the massive change in population density worldwide plus the advent of international air travel the World Health Organization is estimating that a Bird Flu pandemic could kill 300 million worldwide. Even their pie-in-the-sky best case scenario where the world is given another year or two to prepare places the number of dead at 7 million.
We may not have that long.
So what makes this version of the flu any different than the disease that strikes the US every winter?
Pandemic influenza is not an unusually bad version of the flu that appears each winter. Those outbreaks are caused by flu viruses that have been circulating for decades and change slightly year to year.
Pandemics are caused by strains of virus that are highly contagious and to which people have no immunity. Such strains are rare. They arise from the chance scrambling and recombination of an animal flu virus and a human one, resulting in a strain whose molecular identity is wholly new.
The reason Bird Flu has flared up in Asia is because of the close proximity of people and birds. This closeness has been seen throughout history as a prerequisite for viruses making the jump from animals to humans.
What has international health officials especially worried is that this particular flu’s mortality rate doesn’t moderate once it makes the jump to humans. Where the disease might have a mortality rate of 70% in birds, that number would be expected to fall precipitously once making the jump to humans, dropping to less than 10%. The reason is the simple evolutionary strategy of the bug. In order to survive it must keep infecting humans. To do that, it has to keep the host alive long enough to infect someone else. This gives our own body’s defenses time to marshall its immune forces to do battle with the invader.
However, this strain of Bird Flu has shown a 34% mortality rate. And while there’s a chance that figure will go down in any pandemic, compared to the 1-3% mortality of ordinary flu worldwide the numbers would still be catastrophic.
As for the economic effects, there would not be a parallel in American history. The reason goes to the heart of what globalization means to our economy and how economic activity in the United States is truly the engine that drives the economies of the world.
If the kinds of draconian quarantine measures contemplated by the government were initiated, the economy would deflate like a punctured balloon. Even if the CDC were able to contain the epidemic quickly – say, as quickly as a modern industrialized Hong Kong was able to contain the recent SARS outbreak, we’d still be looking at a period of about two months of government mandated reduced economic activity.
What would that mean for the economy?
The only comparable event we have to go on would be the economic impact of 9/11. And while there are as many estimates for that as there are economists, the GAO did a round-up of estimates that would seem to indicate that the attacks cost the US economy upwards of $165 billion in direct costs with a loss of perhaps as many as 175,000 jobs. Indirect costs that are still being felt today could be 3 times that much.
That was one attack in one city. The flu would hit several cities almost simultaneously and cause massive economic dislocation due to the virtual halt in economic activity in those and perhaps most regions of the country. I wouldn’t want to contemplate what that would mean over a two month period but given that imports and exports would be massively affected due to probable restrictions on loading and unloading of ships, I daresay that the entire world would be plunged into an economic nightmare that would overwhelm the ability of most third world government to deal with the crisis.
I really hope I’m wrong in all this. But seeing how the WHO has been scrambling for the last 18 months to try and contain each and every outbreak of human to human contact, I’m not very optimistic. And the CDC is taking the possibility very, very seriously.
As I said back in May when this story first started to percolate, I’m going to keep a close eye on the far east news services. I would suggest you do the same. Given the incompetence of the MSM, by the time they start reporting this story in earnest, the epidemic will be upon us and it will be too late.
I’m also going to make some common sense plans including purchasing a good supply of surgical masks and stock up on canned goods and other non-perishables.
I hope a year from now everyone can call me an old goat who panicked over nothing.
I thought that this would be a story tailor made for the Shadow Media but at the moment, only 9 blogs have linked to the WaPo article.
One of them is Fragments of Floyd:
We (global mankind, science and public health) have not adequately anticipated and prepared for such a scenario, even though we could have seen it coming for a decade or more. If we could turn back time 15 years and know with certainty the pathogens we would face in the future, would there have been any better cooperation between continents? Would we have wasted so much talent, wealth and technology (ostensibly) to protect our people and way of life from acts of terrorism if we’d accepted that it was emerging infectious disease that posed by far the greater threat to our economy and to our very survival?
It seems we may be very near the moment of truth. Is it too late to turn our swords into vaccines?
I don’t buy the argument but he has a point (we would have to face both – there’s no “either, or” – much like our dilemma at the outset of WW II: Germany or Japan?)
His point about cooperation is spot on. Read his post for how that pandemic might be nipped in its infancy with an international pooling of resources.
It appears that most of the other A-list bloggers don’t find this story worth their time with the exception of Glenn Reynolds, who thinks we should be worried “a bit” and John Cole who at least has the common sense to share a small degree of my concern:
This isnâ€™t going away, it canâ€™t be negotiated, so we better start preparing. Just as a curious side note, the the late night crazies at Art Bellâ€™s Coast to Coast have been fretting about this for years.
What next! Will a Yeti walk out of the woods and show up in a bar in Yakima?
The Maryhunter has posted his learned and fascinating response here.