Hurricane lessons for flu: Common-sense measures can minimize risk

On Tuesday, President Bush outlined a $7 billion national pandemic influenza preparedness plan. On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services published backup documentation: It contemplates the costs of a moderate pandemic influenza.While Congress is bickering over cost sharing—loath even to mention taxes to cover the costs of natural disasters—a highly virulent strain of influenza in bird populations is not behaving the way anyone would it like it to.

Pray there is no flu pandemic before Congress gets its act together, before state and local governments do too, and before novel vaccine production methods are approved and available to more than a fraction of the population. And pray especially that bird flu does not migrate toward easy transmission between humans at anywhere near its current lethality.

H5N1 has raised the alarm of public-health professionals to a fever pitch for good reason: Of humans known to have caught this virus from birds, 50 percent die.

The virulence of H5N1 is not a new fact. But the U.S. government should not pull its punches with the public, just to hedge against panic in living rooms and the dismal reaction of financial markets.
What the United States needs to prepare for is a serious pandemic, not a moderate one, based on the risk of H5N1.

If it fails to mutate, so much the better. But if it does, or a similarly lethal strain emerges, government must assure the continuity of essential goods and services provided by private corporations, such as food and energy. That’s in the event that one in three workers at any given time are too ill to be at their jobs and whole families will be home, treating themselves because health-care facilities are overwhelmed.
Prepare yourself and your families. There are common-sense measures that can minimize risk to your health, including the possibility of self-quarantine for an extended period of time.

Ask your local government officials what they are doing to ensure the protection of civil order when the basic necessities we take for granted are interrupted.

People need to do more than pray about pandemic flu: They need to pay attention to recent experience.
Before Hurricane Wilma hit a few weeks ago, the people of Florida were warned by Gov. Jeb Bush to have on hand water and food to last a couple of days. Preparations also included filling the car with gasoline, an extension of most people’s necessities.

Even with the benefit of graphic examples from earlier hurricanes on the Gulf Coast—one hitting in Florida exactly the same area Wilma did—people ignored the governor’s warning and their own prior experience.

Mile-long lines for gasoline formed after the storm passed. Worse, officials failed to anticipate the effect of widespread damage to the electricity grid.

Although inventories of gasoline were adequate, gasoline was stuck beneath service stations. Although ice and water were pre-positioned outside the impact zone, the inability of trucks to refuel caused irritating delays.

The question that needs to be answered now is how private industry will ensure continuity for key goods and services to sustain life during a pandemic that could break out in 5,000 places at once and last nearly a year.

What happened to South Florida’s gas stations two weeks ago is an object lesson. In the finger-pointing after the hurricane, Gov. Bush asserted that it was not the role of government to require gas-station owners to provide backup power. But even within his own political party, there was instant disagreement.

Leaders such as U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale noted that the oil industry was sufficiently profitable to be required to provide backup-power generation for gas stations.

Of course, forcing business to incur costs is a much harder sell for politicians than dipping into the piggy bank to pay industry to come up with solutions, like novel vaccines (which will not, at any rate, be generally available to the public until well after the pandemic races through).

So what is a conservative president to do? If conservatives like Gov. Bush disdain imposing excess costs on business, what are leaders called who want to conserve the lives of citizens: neo-conservatives?

What is needed now is an executive order or federal legislation to require private industry to provide planning for sustainability of production and delivery of key goods and services during an influenza pandemic.

Will it be costly? Yes. Will the consumer pay? Yes. Is there an alternative? Yes, it is called chaos.

After a hurricane, time alters to a state of suspended animation. During a flu pandemic, rolling decision making could be an impossible burden for a democracy.

Let’s keep our priorities straight: The biggest threat to our national security is not terrorism but a flu our immune system has never seen, compared to which hurricanes will seem like swirls down a bathtub drain.


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