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Playing Chicken With Avian Flu: Pandemic Rising?

| 21 Comments | 6 TrackBacks
Chicken Burning

Some of our readers will recall (a) China's dismal record of inaction and cover-up with SARS; (b) The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 20-50 million people; (c ) Winds' article about global democracy promotion as a global development policy; it pointed out the inherent and inevitable failings of planned/ authoritarian socieites, and specifically noted their inability to react to things like avian flu pandemics as a key example of what we were talking about.

It seems the chickens may be coming home to roost a little earlier than we'd hoped. Reader Eric Kansa of the Alexandria Archive Institute writes in to say:

"I want to direct your attention toward avian flu, an issue that, given its scope and potential consequences, receives very little attention both in the traditional press and blogosphere. I've been following this for some time, basically the World Health Organization is doing everything NOT to raise the alert level from stage 3 to stage 5 or 6, and has tried to explain away clear cases of human-to-human transmission (these cases mean we're at Stage 5 at least). There are also LOTS of rumors China is covering up an outbreak of Stage 6 human-to-human bird flu. China has been completely uncooperative with the WHO, refuses to let out most medical samples, and has even threatened epidemiologists. Nevertheless, the few published samples available from China (obtained from dead birds in Qinghai) all have genetic traits of strains that infect mammals, including humans. The worry is that these samples come from a major nexus in bird migration routes, meaning that this dangerous virus will soon be dispersed throughout Eurasia (it's already popping up in Russia)."

Uh-oh. Eric also drew our attention to a few informative links on the subject of avian flu tracking, the consequences of a pandemic, etc:

  • has an excellent round up of all flu
    news from a public health / genetics professional
    . Note how far along Avian flu is, and how ineffective the WHO has been. Posts lots of worrisome speculation about internal events in China, stuff that can't be confirmed but made more suspicious because of the utter lack of transparency maintained by the Chinese state.

Eric concludes:

"The upshot: A pandemic can breakout any time now, especially as we move into the fall (weather changes and bird migration become more favorable to flu transmission). This is really urgent.

We are completely unprepared for a bird flu pandemic, with only enough antiviral drugs for 1% of the population. This has got to become a major concern of the blogosphere (since the traditional press does nothing more than rehash WHO statements), and must provoke some urgently needed planning!"

Eric's is a warning worth heeding, even amidst the threats posed by Islamofascism, nutter Kim Jong-Il and his Hitlerian Mordor-state, et. al. Here's hoping that people listen.

Fortunately, as Pundita noted:

"The drawback with pinning faith on planning [JK: as a mode of organization for society as a whole] is that one can't predict and control life, much less plan for life's surprises. So as messy as the free society is, it has the edge where it counts -- in the struggle for survival -- because a democracy allows for highly diverse input to government in response to new challenges. That increases the chance that an effective response can be quickly mustered to deal with life's surprises."

Let's hope. Perhaps the long-standing work of Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT, and the politician most likely to grok this stuff), and exercises like Dark Winter and its follow-ons, have taught folks a few things.

Will that be enough if avian flu gathers steam? Maybe not. There are major gaps in the system as it stands, and miles to go before we sleep the sleep of the truly prepared.

In many ways, a pandemic isn't really all that different from a major bioterrorism scenario. Winds recommendations #2-9 from my June 2002 Bioterror Readiness 10-Point Platform for Change still apply, for instance. So, unfortunately, do the comments in Bill Quick's bioterror readiness post re: why the USA isn't farther ahead in 2005. There's a lot of heavy lifting to do, in order to change that picture. We may not have that time.

If we really want to "plan" for a dynamic scenario like this and get a fast fix out there, there's a simpler way: don't depend on a huge, elaborate system, but on fast point defense and overlapping measures. Spend about $1 million, and ship copies of SimOutbreak to every key official all around the country. In a scenario like this, fast and informed local reaction will be worth hundreds of millions in backup infrastructure. Include law enforcement and first responders in the distribution - they'll probably be the first to see the signs. Have cities like my Toronto, hit hard by SARS, share plans and lessons learned.

Spend a bit of time following this yourself, on a personal level, and think about what your contingency plans might be re: your family. Spread the word. Write your representatives. Point out that the WHO is soft-pedaling this, and may fail entirely.

In other words, begin building little islands of understanding and capability. Eric says "start planning!" I say "Plan less. Experience and communicate more. Become a pack in motion, not a herd in wait."

Even so, I wouldn't neglect some of the larger structural issues. Especially the ones that are law-caused and so amenable to legal fixes. The U.S. lawsuit system, for instance (legal system is a misnomer), currently makes producing critical vaccines et. al. too risky and unappealing for many private companies. Y'all might want to fix that down there, quickly, as a fast first structural step. Before it fixes y'all instead.

Mark Helprin:

"A hundred years ago, our predecessors, unable to sense what had already begun, did not know the price they would pay as the century wore on. But, as the century wore on, that price was exacted without mercy."

Rarely can. Always is. There are always more things in heaven and earth, after all, than are dreamt of by Washington insiders - and some of 'em bite. The partisan warriors may or may not pay attention, even so. But we should.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But we have promises to keep.
And miles to go before we sleep,
And miles to go before we sleep.

UPDATE: More resources and a couple of encouraging (or sobering, YMMV) reports in the comments section.

6 TrackBacks

Tracked: July 27, 2005 9:00 PM
Something New To Worry About from Below The Beltway
Excerpt: From Winds of Change, comes this story which asserts that the Chinese government is playing a cover-up game over the avian flu, and that this is a bigger problem than the world realizes.
Tracked: July 28, 2005 12:22 AM
Excerpt: A disconcerting roundup over at conservative Winds of Change. Well worth exploring. Joe Katzman believes the problem is so urgent, it's time to start drafting contingency plans for your family....
Tracked: July 28, 2005 6:59 AM
Avian flu - Chinese coverup? from Secular Blasphemy
Excerpt: Is it about time we get really worried about avian flu? Joe Katzman prints a letter from Eric Kansa which is quite chilling reading.
Tracked: August 21, 2005 4:47 AM
Excerpt: With Summer in its last month and the Fall approaching, I am contemplating the possibility of a global pandemic which has been given the name Bird Flu. A good friend of mine believes that such an event is almost
Tracked: September 26, 2005 4:59 PM
Avian influenza from stop bird flu
Excerpt: The UN says that the H7 strain of bird flu previously undetected in Asia has been found in North Korea.
Tracked: October 5, 2005 6:20 PM
bird pandemic PH from Stop Bird Flu
Excerpt: Philippines has no medicines on stock to treat bird flu:


Trial lawyers have the american medical industry by the balls. Medical innovation is frozen by fear of litigation, so the response to epidemic emergencies is limited. Trial lawyers have got the entire of american industry by the balls. Innovation is extremely difficult, dooming the economy to stagnation.

Having said that, avian flu and global warming represent similar threat levels to human existence.

A couple of weeks back Russia had its first outbreak of avian flu in more than a decade. The outbreak, which I think was contained was in a small village near Novosibirsk, quite close to the Kazakh border. I haven't heard (but also haven't checked for) any cases in Central Asia, but I wonder if it is beginning to spread there.

The global warming, if it exists, is too diffuse in its consequenes for us to know anything useful about it until we're warming once had England covered with grapevines and exporting wine. But that was in the 12th century.

OTOH, avian flu should be on the front burner. With the "Spanish" influenza, my grandmother and an uncle (he was six) died within weeks of one another, smashing our family for several generations. It destroyed towns and wreaked havoc on common civilities. In Philadelphia, people stole coffins, dumping bodies so they could use the caskets for their own loved ones.

In six weeks, it killed more than three quarters of a milion people. I don't know what percentage of the population that was back then.

Perhaps the destructiveness was masked by the horrors of WWI. Whatever the reason, as a culture the West never mourned all those deaths and the effect they had. Sociologists claim that afterwards, the circle of our 'personal space' was drawn much larger and parents internalized the necessity to be more physically distant from their children in order to avoid infecting them...

Anyway, I've always thought the Roaring Twenties was a rebound situation, brought on by both the Great War and the Spanish epidemic...

This will get worse and it will bring about the same frantic public behavior. So what do we do, Joe, start building our coffins now and putting them aside?

To end on a cheery note: it will wipe out the current terrorist threat. For one thing, a whole lotta them will die. For another, the threat of imminent death does indeed concentrate the mind and theirs will not be on jihad.

This is already way too long for a comment. Sorry for the verbiage. I'm going over to Gates and post on this...


I was intending to post arguing that that little orange stuff that grows on bread didnt exist in medicine during the previous outbreaks of killer flu's, but the spam filter was having none of it.

No offense guys but between secret codes and airtight spam filters it can be really annoying trying to post these days. Personally i could learn to deal with running across an ad for the V pill every couple of days much more readilly than trying to figure out how to talk medicine without mentioning the most successful drug in human history. Just my opinion.

antibiotics test

penicillin test

Health officials in Manitoba--where I live--are already getting ready for a global flu pandemic. This pandemic, they feel, could affect 1/3 of the Canadian populations and cause a genuine crisis. Think of it--1/3 of the police force off sick.
Interesting and at least a little scary.

Another pair of good sources are:
This site is just what the name implies, all about Avian Flu.
Part of the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

As I understand it, antibiotics such as penicillin are completely worthlesss against viri such as influenza.

I expect at least two catastrophic pandemics to come out of China and roll over the world during the next twenty years. China will probably be de jure quarantined after the second - official prohibition by the developed world of travellers from China (plus visits to China by their own people), and possibly of trade.

Critical stuff Joe. The warning signs have been there for a couple of years. SARS has shown what a relatively serious infectious disease can do to a city and to a high tech medical system.

For more on the Canadian situation Epidemica

Ian Welsh has a good, if slightly alarmist (I hope) article up on the economic consequences of the flu which is cross posted at the Flu Wiki

We need our governments to cut through whatever redtape is between us and a supply of antivirals and vaccines sufficient to allow outbreaks to be issolated and treated quickly.

We also need to have public awareness raised so that, if there is an outbreak, people will understand how critically important really effective quarantine will be in preventing full blown pandemic.

Are there sites that talk about what we should be doing to protect our families, and what sort of emergency supplies we should be keeping on hand and encouraging our friends to keep on hand?

It doesn't look like anyone's government is going to be ready when it hits, what can we do personally to protect ourselves and whatever parts of our community we have influence over?

FuturePundit has talked about the Avian Flu dangers in the past, and has given his opinion on how to prepare (from the minimum to the ridiculous):

Hate to break it to you, Mark Buehner, but antibiotics don't work against viruses; they work against bacteria. Against viruses you use vaccines (don't know if there's a flu vaccine for H5N1 type flu) and antivirals.

So, what I think I'm going to do is go to my very nice doctor and tell him I'm traveling to Asia, and could he please prescribe me one of those antivirals. Then I'm gonna keep it in the fridge and hope the scary guy from is wrong in his projections.

Shades of flu-phobia? Like the Swine Flu epidemic that turned into Ford's fiasco of paralytic complications. Or last year's crisis of flu vaccine shortages that failed to make a difference. Gosh darn, you gotta have a crisis! If it isn't one thing it's gonna be something else. Keep the scare-mongers in pocket change, and at least pretend to take them seriously.

Mark Poling:
Ah yes, antivirals.

Read recently on a blog (can't recall where now, and too short of time on a dial-up to google) but appears the Chinese authorities have being supplying antivirals to farmers to contain avian outbreaks.

Trouble is, without hitting the whole disease hosting population, domestic and wild, and likely with below optimum dosage/time to save money, what's the result?
Resistance to the antivirals is what.

Mr. Farren, I know, I know. Improper use of antibiotics has gotten us some nasty antibiotic-resistent diseases, including that old favorite, tuberculosis. But if a repeat of the spanish flu happens, I want whatever might help on hand.

"Have cities like my Toronto, hit hard by SARS, share plans and lessons learned." Perhaps your best line (you project manager, you). I note, however, that Milwaukee may be a better example. Further motivation may, for some of us, be found herein.

Mr. Poling

The flu cause pneumonia and that is what kills you. Antibiotics does work on that.


We're a good source precisely because we screwed up on SARS. But there's no exclusivity implied - learn from Toronto, Milwaukee, everyone.

Avian Flu may turn out to be a fizzle; that has happened before. Or it may become a widespread killer; that has also happened before. This much we do know... given enough time, a killer will emerge. We also know that antibiotic and antiviral resistance is, errr, not unheard of.

Whether or not this particular incident rewards our hope or fulfils our fears, serious preparation is worthwhile. It may be a rising killer this time, after all. And one day, it WILL be, and readiness will save lives.

Gosh, I'm beginning to feel a bit punk just thinking about this. I had some notion that my great grandmother's sister had died in the epidemic around Spokane, WA, but I just looked her up in the family album and it appears that she passed away in 1916, a couple of years before the flu. From what I can tell, the pandemic didn't touch my family at all. At least not on my mother's side. Certainly no mention of it anywhere in our family records. Records on my father's side are a little more sparse, but I don't recall any talk about the pandemic.

My maternal grandfather was stationed in France at the time, as a airplane mechanic. I still have a button hook he fashiend from spare parts from a WWI war plane (probably a Spad). The only thing he ever said about the war was that all he had to eat on the troop ship going over was one raw potato, and someone stole a suit he bought in London on the way back. So he had these two little vignettes that bracketed the war, but not a single word about the war itself. Strange, and telling.

Timely observations, Joe, and a far, far better thing than wishing it would go away and be the Big Fizzle that may turn up.

Living on the little island of Chincoteague, VA, a little more than a decade back, I noted the number of childrens' graves dating from the 20's - and was informed that the flu wiped out almost an entire generation there. (At the time the mainland was only reachable by boat.)

Yesterday was the island's wild pony swim, tomorrow the auction.

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