Thursday, November 03, 2005

$7.1 Billion Flu Plan Proposed

A decade in the making, the federal government released a $7.1 billion proposal for fighting a flu pandemic. Significant portions of the plan rely on state and local officials, recognizing that the federal government would not be in any position to spearhead nationwide efforts in a pandemic. (Washington Post: Flu Plan Counts on Public Cooperation).

The plan also relies heavily on public cooperation and common sense, two traits rarely found in emergencies of this nature. Rather than impose force quarantines, the plan would prefer to use voluntary quarantines. That's not likely to be effective. Interestingly, the plan does not mention use of the military to assist local areas in dealing with the flu impacts. That's actually reassuring since rapid mobilization of the military would likely escalate the spread of the virus rather than contain it.

Reminiscent of the Y2K hype, one section of the plan suggests that people stockpile a 10-day supply of food. This would serve in the event local officials declare a "snow-day" type emergency that closes all business for a week or more. Whether or not an imposed 10-day local shutdown is practical remains to be seen.

Other suggestions include travel bans and quarantine stations at airports. Even a hint of avian flu breakout in tourist areas could cripple the travel industry as witnessed during the SARS outbreak several years ago. Travel bans would also have a crippling effect on the economy in general due to the heavy dependence on business travel and intrastate shipping.

Much of the plan stems from an attempt to learn from prior pandemics, three of which occurred in the past century. The two outbreaks given the most scrutiny were the Influenza pandemic of 1918 and the Smallpox pandemic closer to the turn of the century. Quarantine, even of entire towns, was implemented in both of those cases with little effect. Given that this particular virus can be spread by migratory birds, I'm at a loss to understand how quarantine is even practical in this case.

The harsh reality is that there is little we can do to counter the spread of an avian flu pandemic should one of the influenza viruses mutate into human to human contagion. All planning aside, nature will have to run its course. That is what happened in 1918 and with smallpox, and that is what will happen with the next pandemic whenever that occurs. Planning for the effects is a worthwhile exercise, and may even mitigate the effects to some small degree, but in the end it will be time, not money, that will get us through the pandemic. That is a time honored truth.

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1 comment :

Alan Fraser said...

There's some measure of irony in the combination of entries on the Vine tonight. First, an item on government planning for a major medical disaster and then an example of the utter incompetence of a Bush appointee in dealing with disaster. I agree there's little to be done to prevent the spread of bird flu but if there's a way to make it worse then I'm sure Bush will find it.