Warnings Grow Dire on Bird Flu Threat
U.S. Officials and Experts Complain of Catastrophic Danger
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
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
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.
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.
What to Do?
Asked at a Thursday forum hosted by the Council of Foreign Relations what
can be done to immediately prepare for a bird flu outbreak, Osterholm says
there's probably little we can do at this point.
What can the U.S. do to prevent the continued spread of flu from billions of
Asian chickens and ducks? "The bottom line message is: almost nothing,"
says Osterholm, who is also a professor at the University of Minnesota.