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Looming Pandemic

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Bird Flu Quarantine Directive An Ominous Sign


By James Donahue

April 2005


A brief report by Reuters News Service on April 5 said President George W. Bush issued a directive allowing authorities to “detain or isolate any passenger suspected of having avian flu when arriving in the United States aboard an international flight.”


The story said the order added pandemic influenza to the list of diseases for which quarantine can be authorized.


Under the directive, the Health and Human Services Department has the legal authority to detain or isolate any passenger suspected of having the avian flu in an effort to prevent the infection from spreading to others.


Question: since even the World Health Organization (WHO) is not suggesting restrictions on travelers from Far Eastern countries where the variety of avian flu that affects humans, also identified as the H5N1 virus, has been reported, why would Mr. Bush issue such a directive? Does he know something that the general public is not being told?


Both WHO and the CDC are issuing regular reports on H5N1 and are obviously keeping a close eye on this peculiar virus since it has not gone away since first discovered among birds in South Africa in 1961. A strain of the virus ravaged the chickens and ducks in Hong Kong and for the first time jumped species to humans in 1997. Since then, a few isolated cases of the disease jumping from human to human have occurred as new varieties of H5N1 appear.


The disease also is known to spread to cats and other animals. What is frightening is that the mortality rate is very high in both man and animal.


The virus is being watched closely because it has passed all of the standards for touching off a world-wide pandemic, health officials warn.


Yet, to date, the number of humans infected by the disease are low. WHO reports only 79 cases total in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, with 49 deaths. A new outbreak, however, is now reported in North Korea.


So far, even though the virus has been known to spread from one person to another, the CDC notes that the infection has not continued beyond one person. “However, because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that the H5N1 virus could one day be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another,” an agency report states.


It is no longer a matter of if, but when this is going to happen. And there is no available vaccine to protect people from this deadly bug.


This writer is not a medical professional. However, he has reported about medicine and been associated with medical professionals long enough to have an understanding of the seriousness of the situation we face.


The Bush directive seems out of place since all forms of influenza appear very much alike at the onset. Unless equipped with special laboratories and well-trained staff, it seems as if it will be impossible for airport staff workers to know if a sick passenger is carrying the avian flu or some other illness at a cursory glance.


Since this is a disease carried by birds, it is reasonable to wonder if perhaps the disease will be flown around the world, but not by passengers on air flights. Many varieties of birds are migratory, sometimes flying thousands of miles every spring and fall. What is to stop them from bringing us H5N1 from out of the sky upon their arrival even as early as this spring?


A good guess is that the bird flu will be a world-wide killer by no later than next fall. Other than staying healthy, keeping our immune systems intact, and avoiding crowds, there will not be much anybody is going to be able to do about this lethal virus once it arrives.

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