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Warnings Grow Dire on Bird Flu Threat

U.S. Officials and Experts Complain of Catastrophic Danger
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June 16, 2005 -- U.S. health officials and infectious disease experts have been sounding the alarm for more than a year on the deadly potential of a widespread pandemic of the bird flu troubling Southeast Asia.

But their warnings have become unmistakably ominous as they struggle to convince the public and policy makers of the need to prepare for the mass casualties, chaos, and devastation that will likely result if the disease spreads across the world.

As of June 14, 103 people have been infected with bird flu in Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, according to the World Health Organization. Officials yesterday also disclosed the first reported case in Indonesia.

Normally, 104 cases of any disease would hardly grab the attention of public health experts. But bird flu is different. More than half of the cases have been fatal, suggesting an unprecedented level of harm for a modern flu. Humans have no natural immunity to the virus causing the disease, known as H5N1, and no vaccine is available.

In congressional hearings and on television, officials have repeatedly advised the public of the potential for millions of casualties if bird flu gains the ability to easily spread from birds to people or between humans themselves.

Bird Flu Warnings Get Stronger

But the warnings have now become decidedly darker as officials warn of a catastrophic economic shutdown and a global political crisis if bird flu strikes an unprepared world.

"This is much larger than a public health threat. The vast majority of the world just doesn't get how vulnerable we are," says Michael Osterholm, MD, associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense in the Department of Homeland Security and a former bioterrorism advisor to the Bush administration.

Federally run tests of an experimental bird flu vaccine are under way and due to yield preliminary results later this summer. Even if it's effective, no one expects manufacturers to be able to quickly make enough to protect the U.S. population.

Osterholm complains that U.S. officials and companies have not planned for the widespread logistical disruptions that would result if bird flu were to spread within the next couple of years. His warnings range from inadequate planning for hospital overcrowding to the fact that the U.S. market has only 2.5-week supply of caskets.

Local and federal agencies have not planned for widespread disruptions to schools and workplaces as the public is told to stay home and gymnasiums are converted to emergency medical facilities, he says. Travel restrictions and a run on vital supplies, such as masks able to filter flu viruses, would "no doubt" lead to an economic shutdown, he adds.

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