Home > Disaster Response, Safety > “We have met the enemy, and he is us..”

“We have met the enemy, and he is us..”

For the last 5 years or so, we’ve been hearing all about this big danger of the H5N1 virus (aka Bird Flu) mutating to the point that it could be easily transmitted between people. Should this happen, experts say, the result would be a worldwide pandemic that could kill millions upon millions of people. Three out of five people who have caught this virus die. An estimated 243 of the 385 people it is known to have infected between late 2003 and mid 2008, according to the World Health Organization.  Those infected were exposed to the virus from poultry, usually chickens, which they raised and were around for long periods of time.

The high mortality rate associated with the H5N1 virus is what scares the medical and emergency preparedness experts. If it mutates to the point that it can be passed from person to person, the results will be catastrophic.

Back when this fear was first made public, there were countless TV shows, newspaper and magazine articles telling us about how horrible the threat is, how fast it could spread and how we could prepare for pandemics in general. It was big news. Whenever someone died from bird flu in China or some other Asian country, pundits were all over the talk shows talking about how scared we should be. Others would come on and say, “Yes, it would be bad, but it isn’t that likely to happen. The mutation process would take a lot of time before it was able to start making that person to person jump.”

That was then. A couple of weeks ago, something happened that should be common knowledge by now, what with instant news available. The mighty media machine that brought us global warming and Barack Obama would surely let us know about anything we really NEED to be concerned about.. Right?

It seems that a Deerfield, Illinois-based pharmaceutical company, Baxter International Inc., made a wee little mistake back at the end of February. They sent a shipment of flu vaccines to labs in several European countries. These vaccines were for the H3N2 flu virus, which is pretty common right now.  The only problem was that co-mingled with the vials of H3N2 flu vaccine were unlabeled vials of.. live Bird Flu virus. The mistake was finally caught after a lab tech in Germany tested the vaccine on a ferret. The ferret died, which should not have happened. When the vaccine was examined, they determined that it was indeed contaminated with the Bird Flu virus.  Baxter International Inc.was a bit reticent in getting out details, but eventually Christopher Bona,  director of global bioscience communications for Baxter, confirmed that the Bird Flu virus was live- unlike the dead virus normally found in vaccines.

While H5N1 doesn’t easily infect people, H3N2 viruses do. If someone exposed to a mixture of the two had been simultaneously infected with both strains, he or she could have served as an incubator for a hybrid virus able to transmit easily to and among people. Exactly what the medical experts are afraid of.  No need to wait for time and nature to mutate the Bird Flu virus to a pandemic capable strain, we’ll do it ourselves!

Thankfully, this mistake was caught in time. What about next time? That brings me to the other point that needs to be made. The US media, for whatever reason, decided not to pass this story along to the people they are supposed to serve. I checked the web sites for the major news services- CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, Fox News.. not a word about this incident. The only US source I found was Bloomberg. The story was first reported by The Canadian Press on February 25, two weeks ago.

The point is that an outbreak could occur a lot sooner than anyone could imagine. It is important to examine workplace response plans to ensure that pandemics, or even more localized epidemics, are addressed. A great resource for planning purposes can be found at PandemicFlu.gov. If your company has not considered the possibility of operating during a pandemic, it is past time to do so. This sort of emergency could strike without warning. Most of us were of the opinion that such a worldwide catastrophe would be one that we’d see coming long before it’s arrival- sort of like a hurricane. Instead, we see nothing in our primary news sources two weeks after it happened.

The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 was caused by a novel and deadly strain of avian influenza virus. More than 25 million people died, most of them in poorer countries. In the United States about 28% of the population became ill and more than half a million people died. For comparison, HIV/AIDS has killed about 25 million people over 25 years, while the 1918 pandemic killed the same number in a few months. This is why public health officials are so concerned.

We have to be ready now.. there may not be time, next time, to run out for duct tape and plywood.

[see update]

-Ed Sterrett
Central Florida Safety Academy

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Categories: Disaster Response, Safety
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