Oct 10, 2005
Speaking about the possibility of an avian flu outbreak, the president said at last week's press conference, "We're watching it. We're careful. We're in communication with the world. I'm not predicting an outbreak. I'm just suggesting to you that we better be thinking about it. And we are. And we're more than thinking about it, we're trying to put plans in place."Apparently the "thinking" is going quite slowly. Since the avian bird flu strain was identified in 1997, the Clinton administration had three years and the Bush administration had more than four years to come up with a way to deal with flu epidemics. Seasonal flu, without any strain of the avian type, already kills an estimated 35,000 people each winter in the U.S.
If the government were really getting ready to combat an outbreak of avian flu or any flu epidemic, it would have proposed to act in three areas: strengthening the public health system, funding medical research into the flu, and preparing to destroy sick animals.
To deal with an epidemic, what's required is a centralized public health system. To all intents and purposes, the United States has no public health system. Public hospital after public hospital has been closed. Those still open are woefully understaffed and underfunded. They cannot cope with the flood of 40 million uninsured patients.
There is no way to really count cases of flu, or any other disease, contagious or not. Much reporting to the Centers for Disease Control is voluntary. A recent report by the non-profit Trust for America's Health found that fewer than 20 states can even track diseases by computer.
The current secretary of Health and Human Services, in fact, says that in a flu outbreak, decisions will have to be made locally. We saw how effective local control was in the face of public disaster with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita!
Nowhere in the country has serious research been well-funded to explain how avian flu can jump from chickens to humans. And the large pharmaceutical companies, a 500 billion dollar a year industry, refuse to research the disease or to manufacture flu vaccines. They say there's not enough profit in it.
In Britain, in order to contain mad cow disease public officials had to destroy entire herds. But the political supporters of big business who call themselves Congress have never ordered their buddies in agri-business to destroy diseased flocks or herds. Yet the public needs a law requiring the immediate destruction of diseased animals – and other animals in contact with diseased ones.
The U.S. government, able to spend billions on wars overseas and corporate tax breaks at home, has not prepared seriously for a bad outbreak of flu, avian or otherwise, despite Bush's smirking for TV cameras while talking about it.
The director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University put it clearly: "This country is phenomenally not prepared."