Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Distraction of Pandemic Proportions

This morning, Bush tried to change the subject from the indictment of Scooter Libby and Miers' withdrawal from the Supreme Court nomination. He delivered a speech addressing a possible flu pandemic scenario. I applaud President Bush for his efforts, but I honestly do not understand the hype. First of all, the Bush Administration has dusted off one of their best aces with this speech; again, Bush manages to stir up American hysteria by playing off the mainstream's understandable ignorance regarding viruses and vaccines to invent (or at least exaggerate) people's fears. Early in Bush's speech, this morning, he cites previous flu outbreaks -- most notably the outbreak in 1918.

Pandemic flu is another matter. Pandemic flu occurs when a new strain of influenza emerges that can be transmitted easily from person to person and for which there's little or no natural immunity.

Unlike seasonal flu, most people have not built up resistance to it. And unlike seasonal flu, it can kill those who are young and health as well as those who are frail and sick.

At this moment there is no pandemic influenza in the United States or the world, but if history is our guide there's reason to be concerned. In the last century, our country and the world have been hit by three influenza pandemics, and viruses from birds contributed to all of them.

Immediately, Bush sets the stage. Just as he did immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Bush and company fostered a national atmosphere that caused most Americans to believe they we were all in danger of being vaporized at any second by evil-doing, beard-sporting, dark-skinned "terror-ists" who would manifest out of the shadows with AK's and pilots' licences in hand to blow up the neighbourhood Walmart. Now, we're being led to believe that we (yes, all of us, but particularly Grandma and Baby Timmy) will perish when (not if) there is a flu outbreak. Bush continues to say:

The first, which struck in 1918, killed over half a million Americans and more than 20 million people across the globe. One-third of the U.S. population was infected, and life expectancy in our country was reduced by 13 years.

The 1918 pandemic was followed by pandemics in 1957 and 1968 which killed tens of thousands of Americans and millions across the world.

Okay, I just want to say that, after hearing this uttered from the president's mouth, are you really surprised that someone called in to CNN to ask the "flu expert" whether because Grandma survived the outbreak of 1918, if the caller and all her family had inherited a genetic immunity to any influenza virus permutation... including bird flu? Bush then announced the formation of the National Biosurveillance Initiative which will "help us rapidly detect, quantify and respond to outbreaks of disease in humans and animals, and deliver information quickly to state and local and national and international public health officials." What exactly this initiative is, what exactly it's going to do and, most importantly, what it is, remains unknown. But, I gotta say, I'm uncomfortable in this day and age of the Patriot Act of any department that has both the word "national" and "surveillance" in it. Next, Bush says we need to stockpile vaccines against the avian bird flu and the hypothetical Scary Influenza Virus due to pounce out of the shadows any second now. Bush actually does get his facts right on this one; he says, "one of the challenges presented by a pandemic is that scientists need a sample of the new strain before they can produce a vaccine against it. " A quick science lesson: a vaccine is basically a non-infectious or innocuous form of a virus that has the same packaging as the infectious form, but which will not hurt the person (much) when injected. This allows the body's own immune system to learn to recognize the virus and kill it when the body is later exposed to the actual, infectious virus strain. That means that not only is it necessary for scientists to have a sample of the virus in order to develop an effective vaccine (any mutation in the new influenza virus, for example, that would cause it to become the Scary, infectious-to-humans kind will most likely look different than any current version of the flu virus so most vaccines we develop from current strains would not be as effective, if at all, in protecting the body from the new virus). Moreover, vaccines need to be administered before a person is exposed to a virus; a vaccine is not a cure. Unfortunately, Bush makes it sound like a vaccine will still be effective once a widespread flu pandemic broke out, which is simply not true. Again, we see Bush continue to foster large-scale ignorance of exactly what the issue is in order to hide his administration's own inadequacies in dealing with the situation. Bush then demanded over $4 billion dollars to develop a vaccine for both the avian flu and the influenza flu viruses -- where this money is coming from, I don't think anyone knows but I'm pretty sure that as yet unborn Americans will be paying for it well into their old age. Either that or we could sell Florida to pay for it. Bush also proposed litigation protection for vaccine manufacturers. Okay, what is it with Republicans and trying to stop people from bringing lawsuits against big companies? Big companies can and will fuck up, sometimes intentionally! Lawsuits is how the little guys, like us, keep the big companies from screwing us over too badly. If you have someone else's life in your hands, they have the right to hold you accountable in the court of law if you don't take that responsibility seriously. None of Bush's proposed solutions will actually help in a pandemic situation because the issue of dispensing any vaccines is actually addressed. What good is having a vaccine if the people who need it can't get to it? Beyond having a listing of medical personnel, Bush needs to outline a proposal to help the poor, the needy, those without health insurance or the means to obtain medical help get what they will need. Launching a website that outlines what to do in a pandemic situation doesn't help those who don't have Internet access. All that being said, I do believe that being prepared for a large-scale viral outbreak is important. Unknown viruses are a real threat to public health and the NIH should be mobilizing itself in preparation for such an event. If a pandemic does break out, it will be beneficial to get the ball rolling on a vaccine as soon as possible. But I think it's important that the Bush Administration stop trying to twist issues like this for their own political gain. They need to stop promoting ignorance over understanding. They need to stop doing literally the least they can do.


Blogger jose said...

Yeah, the timing is odd, as always. Announcement of Alito on Monday at 8AM to lead the news was the real story intended to bury Scooter. Interestingly, Reid closing the Senate yesterday brought focus back on the White House corruption. Bush&Co sends back a volley today by saying travel restrictions would be in place in the event of a pandemic. Looks like Bush spent all his capital, the Spectre of Terra has passed with Halloween, so the new boogeyman's in town.

11/02/2005 05:50:00 PM  

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