Sunday, September 18, 2005

It is easy to become complacent, simple to imagine that the world will always be the way it is today. I remember first hearing of the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza known as H5N1 in 1997, when it appeared to have been contained in Hong Kong. I was worried but not truely frightened. I heard about it again in 2001 when it was making a comback, but September 11 drowned out the news. I've largely ignored it for years but it has always been hanging in the back of my mind.

Similarly when Katrina hit Florida I didn't pay it much attention. It did some damage, but not that much compared to other hurricanes, and I assumed it was just going to peter out like most do. Then I heard it had built up to Level 5 with 175mph winds and a 20-28 foot storm surge. I heard that Nagin was evacuating New Orleans and Bush was... going on vacation? Good thing Nagin didn't wait for a call from the president before evacuating the city this time.

At the time I couldn't believe it. I was pulling up publically available websites detailing the damage that a level 3 hurricane would do if it hit the city directly, (and was pretty close to what Katrina's level 4 near miss did) along with comparisons of what a Level 4 or 5 hurricane would do on a direct hit. The lack of concern at the top levels of govenrment seemed mind boggling. I assumed there must be behind the scenes work going on. In the aftermath, I must conclude there was not.

Katrinia was a wakup call. I started wondering what was being done to prepare for the other disaster I had been worrying about for so long, and started researching the disease in earnest. I've learned quite a few disturbing things since then. One is that H5N1 has been growing a lot closer to becomming a pandemic over the last few years. The second is that the World Health Organization is severely downplaying the reality of the situation, at least publically. The third is that mass media has gotten into the habit of parroting what official sources tell them, instead of investigating for themselves.

This might not be a big deal for a dictatorship. A dictator might wake up one day and decide to start producing vaccine, provided his nation could afford to. He might also just decide to build a palace to hide in instead... However, America and most of the other wealthy nations of the world are democracies. And although our elected officials don't always do what we want them to, they do tend to worry about going out on a limb and getting cut off at the ballot box. As such they tend to be conservative in their actions regardless of their political affiliation. And they tend to go on being politicians until they absolutely have to step up the the bar as a leader, because being a politician is the safe thing. Leading means taking risks.

Because of this the nations of the world fall into three categories when it comes to responding to H5N1. Dictatorships which cannot afford to produce vaccine against the disease, democracies that haven't produced vaccine against the disease, and China which has produced 2.6 billion doses of vaccine.

Why is this? I can think of two possibilities. One is that the World Health Organization doesn't know what is going on and actually thinks that human-to-human transmission is very rare and only occurs in cases of prolonged contact. The other is that they know that human-to-human transmission is common but use unrealistic definitions of "confirmed" cases to keep the publically released death toll low and to justify denying that sustained human-to-human transmission is occuring, while communicating the truth to governments. This prevents a panic, but unfortunately for those of us living in rich democracies, that means that our governments are hamstrung by the lack of public concern. They are beginning to respond to either behind the scenes communication from the WHO, or to a dawning realization that the WHO is hindering the disemination of knowledge more than it is helping. Either way I fear it may be too little to late.

China on the other hand has been dealing with H5N1 longer than any other nation. Unofficial reports are that it surfaced in China in 1996, a year before showing up in Hong Kong. And they have been having just as many outbreaks as everyone else, despite the lack of publically released information. Unlike the rest of the world though, they have not controlled the disease by culling diseased chickens, but by feeding their flocks the antiviral drug amantadine. This has led many strains of H5N1 to become resitant to the drug. However unlike the rest of the world China has been on a crash course to preparing for a pandemic. They are now vaccinating their chickens instead of using amantadine, and the presumably have the capacity to vaccinate their population as well. It would be a sad testimony to the state of our national will if China was protecting their people with vaccine while our were dieing while we tried to produce enough vaccine.


At 4:24 AM, Anonymous Don L. Rondeau said...

Greetings All

Please find episode #2 (June 2006 episode) of The Rondeau Report. In this episode. Senior DHS representative Jim Caverly gives insight into the threat posed to critical Infrastructure by Avian Flu. This isn't media hype. This is a security briefing for those with an operational focus. In addition to episode #2, I have re attached episode # 1 (May) in an easier to use format.

The Rondeau Report

Share at will

Best regards,

Don L. Rondeau

To be removed from this report distribution, simply reply with "removed" in the subject line of the email. You are receiving this because of our past official professional relationship.


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