July 31, 2005

DAVID BROWN IS SOUNDING THE BIRD FLU ALARM in the Washington Post.

Public health officials preparing to battle what they view as an inevitable influenza pandemic say the world lacks the medical weapons to fight the disease effectively, and will not have them anytime soon.

Public health specialists and manufacturers are working frantically to develop vaccines, drugs, strategies for quarantining and treating the ill, and plans for international cooperation, but these efforts will take years. Meanwhile, the most dangerous strain of influenza to appear in decades — the H5N1 “bird flu” in Asia — is showing up in new populations of birds, and occasionally people, almost by the month, global health officials say.

If the virus were to start spreading in the next year, the world would have only a relative handful of doses of an experimental vaccine to defend against a disease that, history shows, could potentially kill millions.

Read the whole thing. And then worry a bit.

UPDATE: Reader Jim McMurry emails:

The worries about bird flu are past the realm of “could be a threat” and have entered the phase of the ticking time bomb and we cannot see the time marker, nor know when it will go off in the USA. I am betting on October 2006, but it could come sooner.

Well, we don’t know. A major flu pandemic is pretty much inevitable sooner or later. On the other hand, many of the casualties from the 1918 flu were people who were weakened by TB, meaning that perhaps lethality won’t be as bad this time. But I certainly think that we need to be working hard on antiviral drugs, and protocols for the rapid production of new vaccines, not only to be ready for bird flu but to be ready for all kinds of potential natural and unnatural outbreaks.