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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Infectious Disease

Each day the news becomes more ominous regarding the spread of a “bird flu” or avian influenza through nine east Asian countries. Millions of chickens have died from this disease and millions more have been slaughtered to stop the spread to humans. For now, humans can contract this flu by direct contact with the fowl’s faces but health experts fear the virus could mutate with a human influenza virus that would then be transmissible from human to human and produce an epidemic spreading around the world.

Over 30,000 Americans die from influenza or flu every year. Ever wonder why so many of the annual flu strains have Chinese names? Because ducks get infected on Chinese farms, give the virus to pigs who then transmit it to farm families who live in very close proximities to their animals. Then the virus takes off across the pacific and over the past century has taken millions of American lives.

This is not, however, the weapon of mass destruction that concerns President George W. Bush. He has spent over $400 million taxpayer dollars since March looking and not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He has his government deeply involved in this futile quest which even his chief weapons inspector, David Kay, finds an exercise without results. The media covers this subject almost daily.

Have you heard much about Mr. Bush turning his attention and skilled health personnel in a major way toward China’s deadliest annual export to the U.S.? He certainly has condoned and facilitated the export of American factories and industries to the Chinese communist regime. This exodus has left hollowed communities and unemployment lines behind — all in the name of”free trade” which is really corporate managed trade with a dictatorial government.

Meanwhile, infectious disease experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta fear the onset of a massive pandemic, like the one in 1919 that took over one million American lives and some twenty million worldwide.

The level of response and resources amount the world’s nations is nowhere near the needs for prevention, early surveillance, testing, diagnosis, treatment and the application of modern epidemiological sciences.

President Bush would do well to intensively brief himself about the dire necessity of international health cooperation in this area. Health treaties against infectious diseases epidemics are a front rank priority, ahead of Mr. Bush’s concentration on industry-exporting trade treaties with authoritarian regimes.

What would these health treaties provide for? For starters, technical expert assistance, quicker and better laboratory testing, the placement of U.S. infectious disease specialists in China beyond the handful who are already there. There are far more American salesmen in China representing U.S. shaving firms than these life-saving experts.

In addition, since the U.S. imports over $150 billion worth of Chinese goods a year (producing a massive trade imbalance), the U.S. should be able to persuade Chinese officials to stop denying there is a problem — as with the SARS epidemic — until it is late in the transmission stage. China should establish a timely, precise, accurate, open disclosure system. It did not in the SARS case. The results were hundreds of fatalities and tens of billions of dollars of lost production and sales to the Chinese economy.

Most fundamentally, animal health specialists and agronomists are needed in both countries to cooperate over ways to separate the close proximities between these animals and their caretakers and to provideadequate equipment (like goggles, gloves and face masks) when massive flocks of afflicted chickens have to be destroyed.

The chain of infections from domesticated Chinese ducks to pigs to humans can explode into a world war of mutant viruses taking millions of casualties before vaccines can be developed and deployed. Mr. Bush must pay serious attention to this form of biological warfare and listen to his scientists and physicians now too far down his chain of command and control.