I meant to put a file on the sidebar with all the posts about the mystery illness; I suppose I kept forgetting because after a month of thinking about China's pigs I never wanted to see the word "pig" again -- or the word "China," for that matter.
I exerted myself to locate the source of the most sensational rumors about the mystery illness because I knew that few things are more dangerous than to sound a false alarm about a superkiller pandemic. "Fool me, fool me twice." It's the same problem that hurricane forecasters face every year; if the big threat is a dud, many people won't react to the next warning a killer storm is headed their way.
However, after Hurricane Katrina, governors in U.S. states that were at highest risk during hurricane season finally confronted the reality that this was no longer 1902; large numbers of Americans were now living in coastal regions and key industries were perched on the shores.
The governors realized they should worry less about angering constituents and the local Chamber of Commerce, and focus on getting across that from now on, obeying evacuation orders during hurricane season should be considered a way of life. If that caused great inconvenience and unnecessary loss of income when the storm wasn't as severe as predicted -- deal with it by learning to do contingency planning.
This updated approach to the threat that hurricanes pose in this era has not yet been applied by the nation's public health regime to managing government responses to the viral version of hurricane season.
To give you a small idea of how antiquated the regime's thinking is, it would come as a surprise to Americans to learn that the United States has seen several pandemics during the past decade. This isn't generally known because the pandemics are referred to by U.S. public health officials in somewhat Orwellian terms as "flu season."
If it's hard to feature that the annual influenza outbreak in the USA is often a pandemic, that's due to confusion about term. A pandemic doesn't refer to the severity of an infectious disease or the number of people stricken; it simply refers to the amount of territory affected by the outbreak. So there are country-wide pandemics and continent-wide pandemics, and global ones.
Because it's hard for a microbe to create a pandemic unless it's aerosolized
(transmitted by airborne means), pandemics are associated with such means of transmitting viral infections even though AIDS, which is not aerosolized, is considered a pandemic infection.
But again it's the amount of ground covered that defines a pandemic.
As to why the U.S. public health regime doesn't call a spade a spade every year -- if I wanted to be mean I could say it's because they've taken what could be considered an actuarial view of the number of deaths associated with annual influenza outbreaks. Yet it's not that cut-and-dried. A modern society can't function if schools, government, and industry have to shut down every time an influenza season shapes up to be a pandemic.
So, the bottom line is that roughly 30,000 Americans die every year from influenza, many of them elderly, and private and public work sectors are affected by large numbers of absences during an influenza pandemic. But the thinking for many decades has been that the measures needed to drive down the death rate from an influenza pandemic, which includes quarantine, are unacceptable and encroaching on people's freedoms.
However, the federal public health regime, which advises government administrations at all levels in the USA, has their head stuck in the mid-1950s when it comes to dealing with influenza outbreaks. The outmoded view is very dangerous given the realities in this era. And it's prevented the regime from making a distinction between how to treat the present swine flu outbreak and a routine influenza.
Plan A -- for the routine outbreaks -- has been to urge Americans to get a yearly flu shot. Because there is no vaccine available for swine flu, Plan B has boiled down to telling Americans to cover their mouth when they cough and sneeze into their sleeve.
Joe Biden took one look at Plan B and blurted: And stay out of crowded closed environments.
He could have put it more diplomatically but his advice is good. I can only imagine what he advised behind closed doors at the White House. Money says that if he'd still been a U.S. Senator he would have been leading calls to suspend airline flights between the U.S. and Mexico, temporarily suspend cross-border vehicular traffic, and quarantine crews arriving at U.S. ports from Mexico.
What does Joe Biden know that the general public doesn't about the swine flu outbreak? He knows what everyone in government knows by now:
That's what Joe Biden knows.
So this is not the time to ask whether to panic or shrug; those questions went out the window a week ago.
This is the time to realize that there's a storm out at sea and that our nation has five months to prepare, if it hits our shores. Adequate preparation can't go forward until our public health regime updates their thinking about the way that influenzas act in today's era.
To gauge how far behind the times the thinking is, consider the language used by officials last week to describe the progress of the swine flu virus. They repeatedly spoke of the virus as "spreading" around the world.
This virus has not "spread" around the world. This virus has alighted around the world. It's alighted from jet planes. That's how it managed to create a global pandemic in little more than a week, and with a very low number of infected people.
The last time I checked Wikipedia's chart, the bug's presence is suspected in more than 70 countries on all continents except Antarctica. The number of confirmed countries is much smaller; WHO's latest confirmation is 21 countries. But every laboratory processing the samples is dealing with a backlog of cases. So we definitely have a global pandemic on our hands, and WHO will get around to confirming that in another day or two.
Yet there are huge differences between the jet-setter viruses of today and the ones who used air travel in the early decades of transnational commercial air travel:
The earliest transnational commercial jet passengers were mostly from developed countries and the majority traveled to other developed countries, which have modern public health facilities and sanitation, and which have fewer of the rural conditions that are laboratories for influenzas. And the volume of transnational air travel was small.
Today there is a huge volume of air travel between the developed and less-developed countries, and which goes both ways. And the country that has a very high volume of international flights from around the globe -- the USA -- shares a southern border and a large daily volume of cross-border vehicular traffic with a country -- Mexico -- that is a chaotic mix of first-, second-, and third-world living conditions.
The globalized aspect of the swine flu bug -- it has genes from both a 'Eurasian' and North American virus -- means that the index case (the first case of a person infected with the virus) may never be found. The person could have flown into Mexico from somewhere in Eurasia, or driven across the border to Mexico from the southwestern USA, or arisen in Mexico or even further south.
What is known is that humanity's famous luck has been running on fumes since the H5N1 type of bird flu made its appearance; mercifully, it's not in aerosolized form but that could change at any second if it hooks up with the right human, pig, or bird flu genes.
If you say, 'First 9/11, then Katrina, then the financial meltdown; I can't take any more this decade,' all those events are just different statements of the same problem.
The new century arrived right on time with globalized asymmetric warfare and globalized banking but monitoring and crisis-management systems weren't in place to deal with them. That's because the systems were geared to a different set of conditions in an earlier era. The same has happened with the emerging threat from highly infectious lethal diseases that daily travel in high volume around the globe as quickly as a jumbo jet.
And just as with the outbreak of global terrorism starting in 2001, and the 2008 global financial meltdown, there have been warning signs that the public health regimes in countries around the world were living in the past.
That means it's time to update our thinking about how to deal with today's jet-setting viruses.
In the next post I'll talk about what I think is the number one dangerous fallacy U.S. public officials are clinging to, and which they've passed along to President Barack Obama and his Cabinet. If the fallacy can be dislodged from the public health regime, then we can mount an intelligent, humane defense against the worst that a superkiller virus could throw at us.
1) A big thanks to John Batchelor for pointing all that out during his show last night.
This entry is crossposted at RBO and Uppity Woman.