There is no question it is difficult to get people to pay attention to a "bird virus" that primarily exists on the other side of the world. Add in the fact that we can't say for sure whether this H5N1 virus will turn into a contagious human virus, and eyeballs tend to glaze over at its mere mention.
So, many people were probably surprised when the White House released a significant plan
today to deal with a worst-case outbreak of the bird flu, where 2 million people might die, 50 million people might be infected and 40 percent of the workforce could be out of commission. The plan's price-tag: $7.1 billion.
This much is clear: We are not ready to handle the toll of a pandemic flu if it were to hit the United States tomorrow. Hospitals barely have enough intensive care beds and ventilators to care for the sick today, and if we suddenly had an additional 10 to 20 million critically ill people, hospital resources would be overwhelmed.
But from my reading of the White House plan, it looks like little of the $7.1 billion will go to expanding hospitals or other health centers. Most will be spent on stockpiling Tamiflu (an antiviral medication) and the production of vaccines, which would need to be changed if and when the virus mutates.
There are also plenty of recommendations for communities and states as to how they should begin programs of surveillance and preparation. But those recommendations aren't complete. For example, if someone arrives in Boston from Bangkok and is ill with flu-like symptoms, what would we do? Will there be an enforceable quarantine? Frankly, I am not sure how that will work in reality.
Despite these questions, the good news is the federal government is at least taking some concrete steps to prepare for an outbreak. As U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said recently: "We don't know if this will lead to a human pandemic, but we do know what a human pandemic is." Yes, we do.
It is estimated up to 50 million people died during the flu pandemic of 1918. With preparation, we can have some hope of avoiding a repeat of that deadly period in world history.