TCS Daily


Will the Defense Rest?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 28, 2006 12:00 AM

We're hearing more about avian flu these days, and there's some reason to think it's a threat. A controversial Chinese study suggests that human beings were being infected several years ago, without that being recognized.

That might be comforting: The longer it's been around without spreading human-to-human, the less likely a mutation permitting such transmission might seem. Unfortunately, it's no longer just a matter of speculation. The World Health Organization has now confirmed its first case of human-to-human transmission. That's still a long way from a strain that's as virulent as ordinary flu, but it's another step closer to something that might spur a worldwide pandemic. In the meantime, both wild birds and commercial chickens are being placed under flu surveillance, and some school systems are beginning to prepare for a pandemic. Still, some skeptics think it's wasted effort. I certainly hope they're right.

Regardless, as I've noted here before, the Avian Flu threat is a useful spur to preparedness. Even if Avian Flu turns out to be a flash in the pan like the 1970s Swine Flu scare, it's extremely likely that we'll see some sort of pandemic in the next few decades, and the scrutiny that the Avian Flu threat has provoked has made clear that we're nowhere near ready to handle it. As this recent news report put it:

"Imagine multiple hurricane Katrinas hitting several U.S. cities simultaneously and lasting for weeks. Then imagine second and third waves of similar disasters occurring several months later.

"In such a scenario, state and federal departments will be overwhelmed and local officials will largely be on their own, said Dr. Howard Backer, chief medical consultant for the California Department of Health Services.

"A flu pandemic would be much the same . . . Backer said a pandemic will disrupt all aspects of society, and businesses and individuals must also prepare.

"Business leaders should begin asking how they will continue operating if their workforce is home sick, and parents should have plans to care for their children if schools close. People should get to know their neighbors, who will be their support network in a pandemic flu outbreak, Backer said.

"Health experts said individuals can prepare for a pandemic flu outbreak by practicing good hygiene habits, such as frequent hand washing, staying home from work when feeling ill, stockpiling two weeks worth of basic supplies and getting reliable information."

And, of course, beyond naturally occurring pandemics, we've got biowarfare and bioterror to worry about. This suggests that we need to look to our defenses in all sorts of ways.

One lesson from recent non-epidemic disasters is the importance of maintaining communications. That's likely to be less of an issue in an epidemic -- though if everyone stays home and eats MRE's, who'll be doing the maintenance? -- but people managing telephone, Internet, and cellular systems need to be giving the question some thought. (There's more on the importance of hardening systems against disaster in this column).

Also, individuals need to prepare. Recently I conducted a podcast interview with Bill Frist on avian flu preparation, and his advice -- "make sure your will is up to date -- wasn't entirely encouraging. (But he did endorse a Ray Kurzweil-style federal program to develop rapid-response vaccine and antiviral therapies. I'm for that, too). There's some more-positive advice on individual preparation here, and, really, everyone should be ready to go for a couple of weeks without food or power, just in case, as a hedge against all sorts of potential problems. You probably won't need to, but if you do, being prepared not only helps you, but lowers the burden on emergency services, which will be busy enough dealing with old-folks homes and stranded tourists.

It's not just people, either. Businesses need to be prepared to operate, as much as possible, when things are rotten. With today's just-in-time economy, things can grind to a halt awfully fast if transportation is disrupted. Truly critical supplies (medicines, vital parts, etc.) need to be stockpiled near where they're likely to be needed, so that they can be gotten even if things are locked down.

Finally, local governments need to be on top of the situation. While some have plans for dealing with avian flu and other epidemics, far too many don't -- and a lot of the "plans" are just paper exercises designed to let authorities say they have a plan, rather than thought-out preparations that might actually help. That needs to change, and it's likely to do so only if local constituents demand it. So demand it! The life you save may be your own.

Glenn Reynolds is a TCS contributing editor.

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11 Comments

just more scare mongering
Sure there'll probably be some sort of epidemic. I was just in asia and people are dying by the dozens already in places like indonesia and china, where it's mostly real filthy and people live with chickens in their houses etc.
But still, just the pandemic after the WW1. it didn't wipe out the world, nor did Y2k, or anyone else's disaster predictions. Sure there will be a depression, but only a certain percentage will die; even if it's one billion, it still doesn't mean the world's end. Remember after the black plague or whatever they called it in europe years ago? I guess about one third of the population died right? And what happened after that, they had more babies, and wages rose rapidly because there was a shortage of labour.

No Subject
Which I guess means that I'll be well paid to bury your carcass. Works for me.

Students of History
TO: Dietmar
RE: Ain't Nut'n Hoppening


"But still, just the pandemic after the WW1. it didn't wipe out the world, nor did Y2k, or anyone else's disaster predictions." -- Dietmar


The reason Y2K was not as big a deal as it could have been was because EVERYONE focused on it and prepared for it. We made sure that the computer bugaboo was eradicated in our systems; at work, at home, everywhere.


The pandemic of 1918 didn't kill as many people as it could have. I believe its mortality factor was 50%. That means that if you got it, you had a 50-50 chance of dying from it.


It killed up to 30 million people, around the world. I think that's MORE than all the people who died in combat during WWI.


Considering the world population was large then, this amounts to 2-3% of the total population of the time. Not very much, looking at it from that perspective. It looks like the infection rate was relatively low. In other words, not that many people caught it. But of those who did, 50% of them died.


However, as the old Army saying goes, "There is no such thing as a 'limited war' at the company level". If you are 'actively engaged', i.e., YOU contracted the 1918 Swine Flu, you were into it up to your eyeballs.


What's interesting about THIS stuff, H5N1, is that it's killing 52% of the people who catch it JUST from the birds.


And, if that cluster of human-to-human cases in Indonesia is any indicator, things could get rather 'interesting'. With that group, the infection rate was, as I understand it 87% and the mortality rate was, based on the reports I've heard, 100%. But that could have been a factor of the genotype of the victims; all the fatalities being of the same family-blood-lines.


One can never really tell.


RE: The Black Death


"Remember after the black plague or whatever they called it in europe years ago? I guess about one third of the population died right?" -- Dietmar


Wrong.


Been reading Tuchmann's A Distant Mirror: The Calamtous 14th Century. The general population lost around twice that, i.e., two-thirds. In some cities, four-fifths. Many village and hamlets were literally wiped out, i.e., 100%.


RE: Be Prepared


The bottom line of this is that one should not be overly confident just because you survived Y2K.


The fact of the matter, from my perspective, is that the ONLY way we can survive, as a free country, if this comes to pass is if EVERYONE is well prepared to deal with it.


Regards,


Chuck(le)


P.S. About the blessings of killing of a large portion of the population.....


....I recommend you read Tuchmann's book and get a firm grasp of EVERYTHING that befell European society as a result of the effects of the Black Death. Pay particular attention to the brigandage and warlords. Don't forget the overall collapse of orderly society.


If you manage to live through it, you MIGHT do well. But then again, maybe not.

staying alive etc
I don't know this Tuchmann's book, but if he says two thirds, not one third, then it sounds like he's the only guy who does. Still, it didn't wipe out mankind.
Re Y2K, I often read how it was overhyped, and most of the world like asia etc just pretty much ignored it; no disaster. Also re the flu and your comment about how everyone should be prepared. In western countries the can go into a tizzy about it, do all sorts of things, ok. But over in asia, where I live nowadays, they don't really do anything, people still live with their animals. Lately some guys in china were instructed to kill and burn their pigs because of some disease; they killed them...and ate them. Go around the kampongs of malaysia, indonesia etc. and see how people still live with their ducks and chickens. I've seen them crapping of the floors, the kids playing in it, the dogs and cats and rats dragging it around. Indeed, even in Singapore, the cleanest place, people are still allowed to have a flock of chickens in the city in their gardens and houses.

buried
That's a silly comment, right? Because it just as well be YOU who dies rather than me. Also, see my below comments.
Some people mistake me, thinking I don't care. It's also sad to me in anyone dies unnecessarily, but it doesn't mean it's the end of the world, or even civilization. My point was that it's another example of over-hype.

What You Don't Know
TO: Dietmar
RE: Look Upon Tuchmann...

"I don't know this Tuchmann's book, but if he says two thirds, not one third, then it sounds like he's the only guy who does." -- Dietmar

...and learn....

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345349571/sr=8-1/qid=1151550121/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-5945532-3702364?ie=UTF8

Barbara Tuchmann is one of the foremost historians of our time. Other books she has written include, The Proud Tower, The March of Folly, The First Salute and her greatest work, in my opinion, The Guns of August.

More on the rest of your missive, tomorrow....

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[Chance favors the prepared mind. -- Louis Pasteur, Father of Microbiology]

Y2K
I was involved in my companies Y2K efforts. We spent a year going through the code, finding and fixing bugs. Had we not done it, our code wouldn't have crashed, but it would have started producing bad numbers. In a financial institution, that's not acceptable.
We had no problems in January of 2000, but that was because we put 10's of thousands of man hours into fixing the problem, before it became a problem.

Additionally....
TO: Dietmar
RE: The Black Death

"Still, it [the Black Death] didn't wipe out mankind.

No. But it could wipe out YOU. And, in my considered opinion, it probably would have.

Now we've got another opportunity with a possible ballistic form of bird flu.

Hey. If it happens and it takes you out, that's not much skin off my nose. However, it would be ironic if you died of starvation, or by being shot by someone protecting their own food supplies from you, instead of bird flu during such a pandemic.

RE: Y2K

"... I often read how it was overhyped, and most of the world like asia etc just pretty much ignored it; no disaster." -- Dietmar

You seem to have poor reading skills. We prepared for it. In my company we found and corrected numerous problems with our software. Software that would have impacted on the telecommunications systems in the western third of the US, less California and Nevada—which are PacBell turf.

RE: Being Prepared

"Also re the flu and your comment about how everyone should be prepared. In western countries the can go into a tizzy about it, do all sorts of things, ok." -- Dietmar

Speak for yourself, compadre. About going into a 'tizzy'.

"But over in asia, where I live nowadays, they don't really do anything, people still live with their animals. Lately some guys in china were instructed to kill and burn their pigs because of some disease; they killed them...and ate them. Go around the kampongs of malaysia, indonesia etc. and see how people still live with their ducks and chickens. I've seen them crapping of the floors, the kids playing in it, the dogs and cats and rats dragging it around. Indeed, even in Singapore, the cleanest place, people are still allowed to have a flock of chickens in the city in their gardens and houses." -- Dietmar

Good on you. Enjoy yourself there. And do, please, butt out of our affairs.

By the by....

....my understanding of Tuchman's book is that the less populous and less prepared communities tended to suffer more from the Black Death than did those that were better prepared for it, when it arrived.

Something to do with cleanliness was a major factor in infection/mortality rates too.

Enjoy,

Chuck(le)
P.S. Based on my participation in local public health department planning sessions, they seem to be of the opinion that a pandemic is becoming more a matter of 'when' as opposed to 'if'. Something to do with the virus not being eradicated in the southeast asian bird population by their vaccination and culling program. That it is NOW endemic to the bird population.

bird flu and me
You mentioned a few times about hoping it will wipe ME out. Why would you even say that? I didn't say anyting about it wiping you out. I just said it will kill SOME people, but not all. RE Y2K, yes I know that in some western countries they spent fortunes on it, and all I said was that most of the rest of the world, did't, and it didn't lead to any kind of disaster there. It was over-hyped. Are you saying it was under-hyped, or just perfect?
Butt out? Don't you approve of hearing other opinions? Here's another angle I'll bet you get really angry about; maybe you will go out and buy a whole lot of vaccines, maybe for yourself, the whole country, the whole world; then you might find out that they don't even work. Then you won't feel stupid, you'll say something like: "at least we did something". Here's another comment you'll really hate. Since now there's only a few companies that make vaccines, whearas some years ago there were dozens, lyou propose price controlls on vaccines so that those companies won't gouge people. Then when you see that there will be even LESS companies doing vaccines, you will propose that the government FORCE companies to product them.

Don't...
TO: Dietmar
RE: ...Go....

"You mentioned a few times about hoping it will wipe ME out." -- Dietmar

...getting the 'big head' about yourself.

I don't 'hope' any such thing.

I just point out that with your current attitude, you probably WILL be wiped out by one force of nature (or mankind) or another.

More on your latest missieve, tomorrow.

Regards,

Chuck(le)

How about... 1997?
"A controversial Chinese study suggests that human beings were being infected several years ago, without that being recognized."

The first human case of bird flu was in Hong Kong in 1997... no controversy there. I'd expect a LAW PROFESSOR to at least get his facts straight...

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