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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Time to Prepare for the Worst

Dale O'Leary

Why are the scientists so worried about the possibility of an avian flu epidemic?

Because they have read the history of the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919 which killed between 20 and 40 million people. They have been able to reconstruct the genetic character of the virus that caused that epidemic and have determined that it was a type avian flu.

There is a very real possibility that the avian flu currently infecting birds and domestic fowl could mutate from a flu that can be passed from bird to bird or bird to human into a flu that can be passed through the air from human to human. Were that to happen, we would be in for a bumpy ride.

No one has immunity to a mutated avian flu. While other flus kill those who are already vulnerable or trigger pneumonia, there is evidence that avian flu can kill directly.

Scientists worry that it is not a case of "if" the avian flu will mutate into a form which can pass from human to human, but "when."

Therefore, it is prudent and pro-life to decide now how we would deal with such a pandemic. There are simple practical steps we can take now.

We need to step up our vaccine making capacity, decreasing the time needed to produce a vaccine once the virus is identified and developing the ability to quickly produce the amounts needed to vaccinate the world. Since there won't be time for years of exhaustive testing, the manufacturers need protection against lawsuits and the Congress has already acted in this matter. Hopefully, pharmaceutical companies will respond positively.

Then we need to create a priority list for distributing the vaccine, starting with the health care workers and key security personnel. All this can be planned in advance. People need to be informed ahead of time where they are on the list. We need to know how long it will take to produce the vaccine and once a person is vaccinated how long before they have immunity.

We need to know all we can about how flu spreads. How long from exposure to the first evidence of symptoms? At what stage in the process is the infected person infectious to others? Can seemingly healthy people be carriers? Can we develop a test to discover if a person is infectious to others? Such information is crucial to the development of plans for quarantine and, make no mistake about it, in the face of a killer flu many countries will impose quarantines. This could totally shut down international business and devastate the tourist industry on which many localities depend. A rational quarantine on international travel based on the facts about the course of the disease could allow governments to hold international travelers in secure facilities to be sure they are not infected.

We also need to know which personal prevention methods are effective. Should everyone wear gauze masks or do these only make people feel safe? What about hand washing? Are antibacterial sprays or wipes effective? Should we give up handshakes and hugs, and adopt the Japanese practice of a discrete bow? Should we wear plastic gloves? How should the food service industry be regulated? These and many other questions can be answered now. Accurate information can prevent panic.

We also need to pre-litigate the freedom and privacy issues. Given our litigious society, one can well imagine the ACLU raising all kinds of privacy issues if the federal government were to declare a state of emergency and suspend some freedoms in order to save many lives. Today there are those who would turn the Constitution into a suicide pact in which an absolutist interpretation of protected "rights" trumps common sense. The delays caused by injunctions and legal maneuvering could allow the pandemic to spread. It is better to debate these issues before the fact.

We need to consider at what point the government should restrict public gatherings. Should we close schools and theaters? What about non-essential businesses? If schools are closed, can television or the Internet be used for education? Can people shop for food from home? Can people work from home? How long will these restrictions need to be in place?

Health care facilities will need plans for quarantining infected patients and protecting the staff.

Right now all of this is an intellectual exercise. We can hope that the scientists are wrong. We can pray that the world will be spared, but having seen the disasters of Katrina and the tsunami we should be grateful we have the time to prepare for the worst.

  • Dale O'Leary is a writer, pro-family activist and educator living in Rhode Island. Her e-mail address is

    (This article courtesy of The Fact

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