Web Zap*Germs Archive

November 20, 2005

Flu Pandemic Threat Reshaping How Governments Communicate with Citizens

USNews has a good analysis of how the current avian-flu threat (for which everyone is "unprepared," according to my news-headline scan) is changing how governments share news of dangers with their citizens. During the 1918 flu pandemic, a lack of transparency by the US government resulted in widespread fear and panic, while the Chinese government's recent unwillingness to share news about SARS slowed international quarantine measures.

Here's an interesting snip, which I hope will encourage you to read the entire article:
Until very recently, the federal government has been loath to scare its citizenry. Its draft pandemic flu plan, unveiled in 2004, talked of only a mild pandemic with 89,000 to 207,000 deaths in the United States, similar to the 1957 and 1968 pandemics. The report included statements that are astonishingly optimistic: 'Pandemic influenza can be controlled by rapid, appropriate public-health action that includes surveillance, identification and isolation of influenza cases, infection control, and intense contact tracing. These measures can be a temporary inconvenience to those involved but are essential for containing a pandemic outbreak.'

In fact, no pandemic has ever been controlled or contained. Although infectious disease experts are hoping to try to do that using vaccines and antiviral drugs, none of them are sure that those measures will work. A pandemic in which one third of the population falls ill, with waves of outbreaks lasting months, would be far more than a 'temporary inconvenience.'

But the final flu plan, released earlier this month, is much more dire. It estimates that pandemic deaths in the United States could approach 2 million, more on a par with the 1918 contagion. The plan also talks about the widespread breakdown in municipal services and social order that could occur, including the loss of public transportation and electricity, and food shortages.

Flu experts have criticized the U.S. plan for relying too much on the antiviral drug Tamiflu. No one knows if it would work against a pandemic flu strain, and even in the best-case scenario the United States would have enough for only about 1 in 4 people. A pandemic flu vaccine, another cornerstone of the federal response, wouldn't be widely available until 2010 at the earliest. But the final plan does acknowledge shortcomings: In a pandemic, communities would be on their own, with little or no help from state or federal authorities.


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