Solutions needed now for future pandemic

Connor Page, Comm '06
Connor Page, Comm '06

Let’s try to imagine the repercussions of a worldwide pandemic. Just think for one minute. Forget the crippling effect it would have on the economy. Forget the consequences it would have on your education. Health will transcend all other concerns—the health of your family, your friends and yourself.

This is the reality we may face should the avian flu, which first emerged in Asia, become a pandemic. There are 15 strains of this disease, though only the H5N1 strain is of particular concern. This seemingly random string of letters and numbers has given the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments all over the world a massive headache and bureaucrats much to worry about.

And there is good reason to be nervous. If a pandemic hit now, no country in the world would be prepared, Canada included. The problem is that there are just not enough anti-viral drugs out there to satisfy the demand should a crisis take place. Canada is grossly under prepared for a major outbreak. The last major pandemic in the world was the 1918 outbreak of Spanish influenza. The death toll is believed to have exceeded 50 million people (50,000 in Canada), and this was before commercial travel was so easy and common. With people traveling the globe at an increasingly rapid rate, H5N1 has many opportunities to strike North America. Avian flu was first discovered in 1997 in Hong Kong, when 18 people were infected through close contact with disease-carrying birds. Six of the 18 later died. Hong Kong ordered a culling of the poultry population and killed 1.5 million birds, an action which the WHO believes likely prevented a pandemic.

To this point, H5N1 is not transmittable from human to human. However, the virus, like all viruses, has shown great ability to mutate. It is already infecting tigers, cats and other species. Many health experts warn it is a matter of time until the virus is transmittable between humans.

To date, 117 people have contracted the disease and 60 have died—that’s a mortality rate of more than 50 per cent. Should this disease become easily passed between humans, the WHO predicts that there could be anywhere between five and 150 million deaths. This wide-ranging estimate makes it appear almost pointless, but the fact is there are many unknown factors. The ability of the virus to mutate into an easily transmissible strain, the rate at which it spreads, and the responsiveness of global efforts in fighting the avian flu will all have a significant impact on the number of deaths.

But the real question is, what are we doing to prepare for a potential pandemic? The answer to this question right now seems to be clear: not enough. There is currently no proven effective vaccine for the avian flu, but governments around the world are stockpiling anti-viral drugs which have been shown to be effective but do not promise complete protection. Of course, there doesn’t seem to be enough to go around. The U.S. has enough anti-viral drugs for 20 million people—that’s only enough for about seven per cent of the country’s population. And Canada isn’t doing much better, only stockpiling enough to treat 2.5 million people, or eight per cent of the population.

It does not take a WHO official to recognize that these drugs will not be getting to the general population. They will be used for health officials and government workers, leaving the general public at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak. Alberta Health Minister Iris Evans has said she is worried that people seem to think the resources will be there should they fall ill.

If the government is not going to take care of us, then we need to find help elsewhere. Companies and other large-scale institutions such as universities across the country should be taking measures to help prevent the spread of H5N1. It is the responsibility of everyone, not just the government. I know I would feel a lot safer if the company I worked for had access to anti-viral drugs, or if universities across the country had an ability to treat their staff and students.

In addition to governments, there are free market sellers of the anti-viral drugs in Canada. This would be the only vehicle the general population could use if employers and schools do not make arrangements to protect them. Reports have indicated that one third of Canadians could fall ill at once should the avian flu spread to humans. If this were to happen, panic would take hold of the population, hospitals would be flooded with sick patients, and people would be housebound in an effort to avoid contracting the disease.

We need the help of employers and universities—not only to ensure our health, even though that is apparently not possible—but also to have procedures and programs in place to deal with a pandemic, whether or not it’s avian flu. Stockpiling anti-viral drugs would be just the beginning. There needs to be a chain of command in place to prevent panic. There need to be supplies like face masks and antiseptics available to help minimize the spread. And there needs to be a general awareness program to inform the public. If we continue to employ reactionary methods rather than proactive measures, our worst fears could be met. This is not an attempt at fear mongering, but an effort to raise awareness for these issues. We do not know how severe this outbreak could be or if it will even mutate to the point where it is “airborne” and rapidly transmittable between humans. However, we do know one thing: history has a nasty habit of repeating itself, and it’s telling us that we’d better get prepared.

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