Risk of a Viral Pandemic

The war in Iraq is doing more than wasting human lives and vast sums of money and goodwill for the United States around the world. As the quagmire of Iraq deepens, other issues affecting the vital health and economic well-being of our citizens are being ignored by the Bush Administration. The costs of this neglect will be monumental.

The latest addition to the growing list of ignored problems is the

mounting concern over the risk of a viral pandemic in China spreading

to the U. S. While the White House focuses on Iraq, physicians and

scientists at the Center for Disease Control see a growing risk of the

viral pandemic spreading to the United States.

Much on the minds

of these health officials is the memory of the Spanish influenza of

1918-1919, which spread to the United States and around the world with

the loss of 40 million lives. More recently we have experienced the

Asian flu epidemic of 1957-1958 and the Hong Kong strain of flu in

1968-1969.

The latest alarm about a viral pandemic in China was

sounded this week by a veteran New York Times reporter, Keith Bradsher,

who reported that Chinese health officials have found what he described

as a “lethal strain of avian influenza among pigs at several farms, a

discovery that could move the virus a step closer to becoming a

potentially deadly problem for people.”

The danger is that once

pigs are infected with both bird strains and human strains of

influenza, the genes can mix and produce a new virus that transcends

human immunity. As the Times’ Bradsher reported, it is still not known

whether the detected flu virus was living and reproducing in

quarantined pigs and whether it is passing from pig to pig. But, if

this happens, it would be a big step closer to a contagious disaster.

Also

this week, the World Health Organization released a report by a

researcher from China’s Harbin Veterinary Research Institute citing

initial evidence that pigs from farms in parts of China have been

infected with what is described as the “H5N1 strain” of avian

influenza. The report was part of an international symposium on SARS

and avian influenza in Beijing.

Scientists at the Centers for

Disease Control are aware that there are not nearly enough viral

specialists and testing capabilities in China nor enough American

infectious disease scientists stationed in China working with the

Chinese authorities to develop an accurate early alert system.

But,

the American people and the people in the rest of the world should not

have to wait until disaster strikes. The time to act is now, not after

the a pandemic is here. That’s both medical and common sense if we want

to protect the people.

President Bush, despite being distracted

by the growing disaster that is Iraq, needs to immediately call a

conference on influenza—a conference that will alert the international

community to the urgency of the problem.

In a letter I told the

President that such a conference is “required to highlight

internationally the immediate need of assigning adequate resources in

funds and skills to foresee and forestall such looming threats to the

health of millions of people here and around the world.”

As I

told the President, these human and material resources, activated by an

international conference, would have the capability to develop vaccines

and other preventative measures to limit the mortality and morbidity.

It

is a sad commentary that there has not already been action on the issue

by the White House despite the concentration on war and the aftermath

of war in Iraq. President Bush endangers the well being of not only the

American people, but also the world when he does not immediately

respond to such threats to health.

It is certain that the White

House over the past three years has been put on notice about the

growing risk of a viral pandemic. Certainly such alerts from China have

come to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the National

Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and in turn, transmitted to

the White House. But this is not enough to move a President who

apparently feels that his presidency should rise or fall solely on the

success or failure of his adventure in Iraq.

The President

should remember that these mutating viruses are not like human

villains. He needs to recognize that their indiscriminate destruction

of innocent civilians can be considered a form of deadly viral

terrorism.

Over and over again, the President has told the

American people that the safety of every American is his highest

priority. The Administration’s regulatory non-enforcement belies this

assertion. His response to the threat of a viral pandemic in coming

weeks will go a long way in demonstrating just how serious he is when

he tells us “safety of every American is my highest priority.”

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