Saturday, October 08, 2005

Avian Flu

On Friday, HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt chaired the first meeting of the American Health Information Community (AHIC), a 16-member panel assembled to advise the Secretary on the development of a national system of electronic health records. As far as American health policy goes, AHIC is a pretty hot topic.

So considering the buzz around the AHIC, it was surprising to see Secretary Leavitt excuse himself before the group’s inaugural meeting had adjourned, announcing that he had to "meet with the President." What was so important that it couldn’t wait another few hours? Avian Flu.

News of a possible Avian Flu pandemic has been simmering around the second and third pages of major newspapers for awhile, but this morning it broke through to the front page of the NYTs whose reporters managed to get hold of the newly created "Pandemic Influenza Strategic Plan." As the NYTs reports, the plan shows that the U.S. "woefully unprepared for what could become the worst disaster in the nation's history."

I’m not saying we should panic yet. At present, Avian Flu is confined to South East Asia. According to the NYTs article,

It has infected more than 100 people, about 60 of whom have died, but nearly all of these victims got the disease directly from birds. An epidemic is only possible when a virus begins to pass easily among humans.
Nonetheless, I think the Administration is more worried about Avian Flu than it initially let on. Leavitt is leading a team on a ten-day trip of South East Asia. Bush is meeting with the chiefs of major vaccine producers. Whether or not Avian Flu is potentially a global crisis, the Administration is treating it like one.

I leave you with the Times’ description of the Strategic Plan.

Much of the plan is a dry recitation of the science and basic bureaucratic steps that must be followed as a virus races around the globe. But the plan has the feel of a television movie-of-the-week when it describes a possible pandemic situation that begins, "In April of the current year, an outbreak of severe respiratory illness is identified in a small village."

"Twenty patients have required hospitalization at the local provincial hospital, five of whom have died from pneumonia and respiratory failure," the plan states.

The flu spreads and begins to make headlines around the world. Top health officials swing into action and isolate the new viral strain in laboratories. The scientists discover that "the vaccine developed previously for the avian strain will only provide partial protection," the plan states.

In June, federal health officials find airline passengers infected with the virus "arriving in four major U.S. cities," the plan states. By July, small outbreaks are being reported around the nation. It spreads.

As the outbreak peaks, about a quarter of workers stay home because they are sick or afraid of becoming sick. Hospitals are overwhelmed.

"Social unrest occurs," the plan states. "Public anxiety heightens mistrust of government, diminishing compliance with public health advisories." Mortuaries and funeral homes are overwhelmed.
Scary Stuff.

--Matthew McCoy