Shanghaiist rarely hears about avian influenza — the “bird flu” — from anyone in China. It’s always relatives and friends back in the United States worrying about something, whether it be unhygienic restaurants, bad healthcare, government spooks, or just crossing the street. And they always blow things out of proportion. Things are never as big and bad as the sensationalistic Western media would have us believe — well, OK, once — so when they keep bringing up this bird flu business, we just blow them off: “Oh, they’re just trying to sell newspapers. And besides, the bird flu is down in southern China. We don’t have anything to worry about in Shanghai.”
Oh yeah? Read this Washington Post story and you’ll be reaching for the nearest bottle of oseltamivir. Only problem is hardly any of that drug exists — and it’s the only one that works against the bird flu. So what? It’s only down in southern China and Southeast Asia, right? Doesn’t matter. Public health officials say an influenza pandemic is “inevitable” and the “world lacks the medical weapons to fight the disease effectively”:
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.
Theoretically, antiviral drugs could slow an outbreak and buy time. The problem is only one licensed drug, oseltamivir, appears to work against bird flu. At the moment, there is not enough stockpiled for widespread use. Nor is there a plan to deploy the small amount that exists in ways that would have the best chance of slowing the disease.
The public, conditioned to believe in the power of modern medicine, has heard little of how poorly prepared the world is to confront a flu pandemic, which is an epidemic that strikes several continents simultaneously and infects a substantial portion of the population.
And then Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, gets all apocalyptic on us. Public health officials have been debating “unprecedented countermeasures” to stop the spread of the virus, like mandatory closings of schools or office buildings:
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.
While the human cases of bird flu have been confined to Southeast Asia, birds in China have had the bug for some time now. We keep killing birds — and it keeps coming back. You’d think SARS would have taught the Chinese government that tranparency is the best policy when it comes to deadly diseases, but there are continued reports of denials, delays and even another cover up. And now that the disease has been found in migratory birds in Qinghai Province, scientists are really worried. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have banned local reporters from writing about a different outbreak, this one carried by pigs in southwest China.
Shanghaiist still has a hospital mask leftover from the SARS scare of 2003. Unfortunately, it looks as though we might actually have to use it this time around.
WHO Communicable Disease Surveillance & Response: Avian influenza
Avian influenza (“bird flu”) and the significance of its transmission to humans
Avian influenza FAQ
WHO: Influenza pandemic preparedness
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