"Clusters of a dozen or so deaths may get nonstop 'if-it-bleeds-it-leads' press coverage, but the lack of preparedness for the really, really big threats may be met with virtual radio silence--until panic breaks out," warns Jane M. Orient, executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Tucson, Ariz., and president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness.
"The worst, possibly existential, threat is the stealthy, invisible one that multiplies exponentially in the accurate sense of the term: 400 cases today, 800 tomorrow, then 1,600; all the way up to 1,024,000 after only eight doubling times. Biological threats proliferate until they run out of susceptible victims."
In 1918, Orient points out, the great influenza pandemic killed as many people in 11 months as the medieval Black Death did in four years. Ultimately, at least 50,000,000 may have perished. Young healthy people, especially young soldiers headed off to the front in World War I, succumbed quickly. "To avoid interfering with the war effort, the U.S. government denied and covered up the threat, preventing the implementation of public health measures," asserts Orient.
"Since then, the world has gotten smaller. A virus that jumps the species barrier from animals to humans in a meat market in China can cross the Pacific in hours--and, as stated by virologist Steven Hatfill and his coauthors in their new book, Three Seconds until Midnight, despite the expenditure of $80,000,000,000 on a National Biologic Defense, the U.S. is arguably no better prepared than it was in 1918."
Orient further notes: "As in 1918, we lack a vaccine or wonder drugs, but must rely on non-pharmaceutical interventions, and on public health authorities to track and try to contain the spread of infection.
"Accurate information is critical. Can we trust governmental authorities to tell the truth? Travel restrictions, quarantine, closing businesses, and cancelling public events have a huge economic and potential political cost.
"There also can be incentives to exaggerate the threat, in order to sell poorly tested vaccines or drugs. The 1976 swine flu epidemic was almost a nonevent; more people were probably injured or even died from adverse effects of the heavily promoted vaccine?"
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