Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bird Flu Update

The map above shows countries with confirmed cases of Bird Flu as of February 2007. It's from the US government web site There is a lot of good information here, but the sections on the impact of a pandemic are sobering:
An especially severe influenza pandemic could lead to high levels of illness, death, social disruption, and economic loss. Everyday life would be disrupted because so many people in so many places become seriously ill at the same time. Impacts can range from school and business closings to the interruption of basic services such as public transportation and food delivery. A substantial percentage of the world's population will require some form of medical care. Health care facilities can be overwhelmed, creating a shortage of hospital staff, beds, ventilators and other supplies. Surge capacity at non-traditional sites such as schools may need to be created to cope with demand.

The need for vaccine is likely to outstrip supply and the supply of antiviral drugs is also likely to be inadequate early in a pandemic. Difficult decisions will need to be made regarding who gets antiviral drugs and vaccines.

Death rates are determined by four factors: the number of people who become infected, the virulence of the virus, the underlying characteristics and vulnerability of affected populations and the availability and effectiveness of preventive measures.
Personally I'm more afraid of the social disruption, interruption of services and food supplies than I am of the virus itself. We've seen time and time again that it doesn't take much to wash off the thin veneer of civilization. It says "difficult decisions will need to be made regarding who gets antiviral drugs and vaccines." In extreme conditions, citizens may not be willing to leave life or death decisions to health care providers. Imagine a father, fearing for the life of a child, who in desparation would use "whatever means necessary" to obtain treatment.

You may not have heard much about Bird Flu recently, but that doesn't mean the risk of pandemic is over. In fact, the number of people killed each year continues to increase, and the fatality rate has increased from 43% to 61% in just a year. Nobody knows why.

The "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918 managed to kill at least 50 million people with a fatality rate of just 2% because it was so damned contagious. This was before the world was so interconnected. Imagine what would happen if the fatality rate of Bird Flu were matched with the contagiousness of Spanish Flu, in a world where people traverse the globe in hours.

Stay tuned. This isn't over.

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