Thursday, September 29, 2005
A good place to start is this recent article from Foreign Affairs, which provides an update on the history of the Avian flu, but also explains why it is so dangerous, putting things into a frightening historical context.
The havoc such a disease could wreak is commonly compared to the devastation of the 1918-19 Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people in 18 months. But avian flu is far more dangerous. It kills 100 percent of the domesticated chickens it infects, and among humans the disease is also lethal: as of May 1, about 109 people were known to have contracted it, and it killed 54 percent (although this statistic does not include any milder cases that may have gone unreported). Since it first appeared in southern China in 1997, the virus has mutated, becoming heartier and deadlier and killing a wider range of species. According to the March 2005 National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine flu report, the "current ongoing epidemic of H5N1 avian influenza in Asia is unprecedented in its scale, in its spread, and in the economic losses it has caused."
How bad was the Spanish influeza epidemic?
Nearly half of all deaths in the United States in 1918 were flu related. Some 675,000 Americans -- about 0.6 percent of the population of 105 million and the equivalent of 2 million American deaths today -- perished from the Spanish flu. The average life expectancy for Americans born in 1918 was just 37 years, down from 55 in 1917. Although doctors then lacked the technology to test people's blood for flu infections, scientists reckon that the Spanish flu had a mortality rate of just less than one percent of those who took ill in the United States. It would have been much worse had there not been milder flu epidemics in the 1850s and in 1889, caused by similar but less virulent viruses, which made most elderly Americans immune to the 1918-19 strain. The highest death tolls were among young adults, ages 20-35.
Bird flu is not yet transmitted between humans, and so outbreaks can be controlled by exterminating chickens, but influenza has a long history of mutation that leads scientists to believe it is only a matter of time before this one makes the jump. The global ramifications of the resulting pandemic are enormous and terrifying. I strongly recommend reading the entire article. And there is a lot more out there as well.
Assuming it is coming, how does one prepare for an epidemic? That is a really good question. Captain Dave suggests taking the following measures once the first outbreak occurs:
Self-Imposed quarantine won't really be necessary, will it? That would require staying home from work and school, which seems terribly disruptive. I guess we can't go to the store either, which means we'd have to plan ahead and stockpile some supplies.
If you must go out in public, wear a surgical or N95 mask and wash your hands regularly. Decontaminate (wash with antibacterial soap) as soon as you come home. Limit your air travel as much as possible. SARS has been spread by people on airlines, and it is likely that Avian Influenza will be as well. Stay off public transportation once the illness has reached your area. Avoid crowded public spaces such as movie theaters, malls and arenas. Pull your children out of school.
Avoid hospitals and health clinics where sick people will go for diagnoses and treatment. A huge percentage of SARs patients got sick while in the hospital. If you are sick and need care, go to the hospital, but don’t do so for elective surgery. If you need prescriptions refilled, do so through the mail, or at least use the drive-in window if your pharmacy has one, rather than going and waiting in line with all the other ill people at the pharmacy counter.
Once an epidemic has reached your region of the country, practice Self-Imposed Quarantine. Instead of expecting sick or contagious to isolate themselves, take the initiative and isolate yourself. Locking your family inside the house is much safer and more foolproof than expecting someone who is contagious to know it and to willingly quarantine themselves.
These sound like the rantings of a survivalist nut! After all, the government will surely vaccinate us all at the first sign of real danger.
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