Pyres: 2001 UK FMD Outbreak - Photo: Murdo Macleod.  Slides L-R: Smallpox, SARS Coronavirus , Foot and Mouth Disease, West Nile Virus.
All Hands Net: Emergency Management and Business Continuity Network, 22 November 2004.
Bird flu seen as the next pandemic

Animal diseases emerging in foreign countries are on course to threaten U.S. families, agriculture and the economy in ways that we've never seen, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said Monday in Minneapolis.

Osterholm, who is associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense for Homeland Security, told a national conference of agricultural bankers that he believes the bird flu epidemic in Southeast Asia will become a lethal pandemic.

Last week, the World Health Organization sounded a similar alert, urging preparations for such a pandemic as a matter of national security. And on Monday, researchers at the National Institutes of Health announced initiatives to step up research to stave off an outbreak and develop a response should it hit.

Osterholm projected that a pandemic could kill about 30,000 Minnesotans, 1.7 million Americans and 177 million people worldwide in its first year. The world is unprepared, with inadequate amounts of vaccine or even face masks, he and other experts say.

If the bird flu virus mutates into one that spreads easily among hogs and people, that would slam travel to a halt and cripple the economy, he said.

"This is going to be the most catastrophic thing in my lifetime," Osterholm said. "When this situation unfolds, we will shut down global markets overnight. There will not be movement of goods; there will not be movement of people. This will last for at least a year, maybe two."

Other new threats linked to agriculture include new mosquito-borne diseases that have yet to enter the United States, he said. And since the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, little has been done to protect the nation's food and water supplies from terrorists.

Americans are familiar with West Nile disease, which arrived in 1999 from Africa, surfacing on the East Coast of the United States. Carried within this country by two types of mosquitoes, it's infected about 20,000 people, killing 500. Physicians are now seeing stroke-like attacks with permanent paralysis among young people who contracted it, he said.

More than 100,000 horses have been infected, and many have died.

Now, another mosquito-borne disease, Rift Valley Fever, is spreading across Africa and Egypt and most recently through Yemen. Once the virus arrives in the United States -- possibly through cargo holds -- it could be spread by 10 kinds of mosquitoes, including sand flies, Osterholm said.

Only about 1 percent of people infected will get sick, but half of them will die with hemorrhagic fevers, he said. One out of 10 Rift Valley cases will damage the victim's retinas, leaving them partially or fully blind.

The disease kills 10 to 70 percent of calves, but fewer than 10 percent of adult cattle. It kills 20 to 30 percent of sheep and goats, Osterholm said.

Hitting healthiest the hardest.

Research on the 1918 flu pandemic indicates that such a virus hits hardest in the healthiest people, often between the ages 18 to 35, he said. That's because the genetic coding of the virus causes it to turn the immune system against the body, with healthy people under the greatest attack from their own strong systems, he said.

The world is unprepared for a "bird flu" pandemic, Osterholm warned.

"Even the vaccine that we have takes six to eight months, if we can get it to work," he said. "So we're going to be confronting this situation without vaccines."

The World Health Organization shares those concerns, recently warning that production capacity for a pandemic vaccine will be "vastly inadequate," unless more companies begin producing it in far greater numbers.

In Geneva last week, about 50 representatives of drug companies, governments, and vaccine licensing agencies met to discuss what can be done to prevent this next coming flu pandemic, which experts such as Osterholm say is inevitable.

The U.S. government is now purchasing 2 million doses of a vaccine for the H5N1 virus, a lethal strain of bird flu, made by Aventis Pasteur.

That volume would protect 1 million people -- who would take two doses of the vaccine, months apart -- rather than the 1.7 million projected to fatally contract it across the nation in the first year of a pandemic, Osterholm said.

J. Edwin Gilchrist, vice president of Community Bank Inc. of Rohan, Mont., was among nearly 600 members of the American Bankers Association who listened to Osterholm Monday. Gilchrist and other bankers said they found the message frightening.

"If that pandemic hits, and we have deaths resulting from it, people are going to start pointing fingers and saying 'Why didn't you do something?' " Gilchrist said, noting the recent flu vaccine shortage. "We've got to get Congress' attention and focus on this, because it has huge economic potential for this country -- both positively and negatively."

Gilchrist, who serves on an advisory committee for his national bankers' organization, said he will discuss the situation with senators and congressional representatives.

He agrees with Osterholm, Gilchrist said, that the potential impact of such an epidemic on the economy and public health "is going to be far greater than anything we've ever seen."

Star Tribune November 16, 2004 <>


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