Archive for April, 2009

Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that we are now at threat level 5 for a flu pandemic. A level 5 warning means that a worldwide flu pandemic is imminent. The WHO has never before issued a Level 5 pandemic warning.  It seems logical then to expect that we will soon have a Level 6 warning from WHO indicating that we are immersed in a worldwide pandemic.  While these high level warnings serve to get everyone’s attention, they don’t really do much to protect us, as individuals, from contracting the flu.  While the U.S. and world governments (not to mention the news media) have been quick to warn us of the imminent danger, there doesn’t seem to be much the governments are doing to prevent us from getting the flu.

One might think that the government would quickly order the pharmaceutical companies to ramp up production of a vaccine for the new flu virus. The problem is that even if they did, the companies could not respond quickly enough. That’s because our method of vaccine production, using eggs as incubators, is much too slow. Besides that, the companies just don’t have enough capacity to produce millions or billions of vaccine doses in a few weeks. A timely vaccine is simply out of the question.

OK, so how about distributing anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu or Relenza to the general population today or tomorrow?  Wouldn’t that work?  It probably would. There is, however, only one problem. There isn’t enough of either drug available. There are about 50 million courses of anti-viral medication in the U.S.  That should cover about 15% of the population. Worldwide, there are about 500 million doses available. Currently, there are 6.7 billion people in the world, so we can protect about 7% of the world population.  It doesn’t look promising does it? It appears that the government knows there is a potential for panic and strong public demand for these antiviral medications.  The supplies that we do have are being pre-positioned in all the states – under armed guard.

So, what can the average person do? It’s pretty clear that, no matter how well intentioned the Obama administration is, the government does not have the capability to protect U.S. citizens from this disease.  We are on our own.  A worldwide pandemic is inevitable. The only thing we don’t know is how deadly it will be. So far it doesn’t seem to be as lethal as the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide.  On the other hand, our usual fall and winter seasonal flu kills about 36,000 Americans every year – and we usually have vaccines for those viruses! With this new H1N1 flu, no one in the world will be vaccinated.  It is therefore likely that the death toll will exceed the 36,000 number in the U.S. by quite a bit.  We can only begin to imagine the toll this disease will also take on the worldwide economy as people avoid travel, shopping, public events, and so forth. The economic effect could be significant.

Meanwhile, we are told to wash our hands and avoid crowds.  Both are good advice, but the government will have to do more if the pandemic really takes off. At some point it might be necessary to ban public gatherings, like sports events and concerts.  I haven’t heard anything about quarantine measures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are being considered.  Our only defense against the disease is reducing person to person contact and keeping our hands clean until the virus burns itself out.  The flu viruses can survive on surfaces, like door knobs, for many hours, so it is important to not only wash your hands but to keep them away from your face. Just touching a mucous membrane with your hand can help a virus on your hand enter your body.  It probably wouldn’t hurt to buy increased quantities of food and stockpile it at home in order to minimize shopping trips.  It’s also probably a good idea to avoid traveling to places that have major outbreaks of the disease. I don’t know if there is much else we can do…..

On a related note – About a year ago I finally finished my first novel.  My book, The Viral Epiphany, deals with a pandemic situation very much like the one we are now facing (OK, maybe a lot, lot worse).  How’s that for a coincidence?  If you have a Kindle Reader, it is available on Amazon for digital download here. Sorry, it is not currently available in hard copy form.  The Viral Epiphany is, of course a novel, but it might make you think about how we do things, and perhaps it might also provide a few hours of entertainment while you sit in your home and wait for the flu to pass by.  The book is also Part 1 of a planned thriller trilogy.

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