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March 18, 2005
Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239.

Roger Martin commentary: Bird flu deserves more attention today than ever before

The Spanish flu of 1918 killed between 40 million and 75 million people worldwide.

In the United States, 600,000 died. In Africa, no one kept count.

Laurie Garrett says the name "Spanish flu" is misleading.

It might better have been called "Kansas flu," says Garrett, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The flu started at Camp Funston, then part of Fort Riley, in 1917, and horses were the first to die.

Garrett spoke last week at the 14th annual Self Graduate Fellowship Symposium at the University of Kansas.

She said that the Spanish flu and other pandemics generally originate from Asian ducks and geese that migrate between Indonesia and Siberia.

Her presentation to the fellows on today's bird flu outbreak in southeast Asia was chilling in light of a couple other things I'd read about it.

Tommy Thompson, the former U.S. secretary of health and human services, in December called a potential epidemic of the bird flu one of the greatest dangers facing the United States.

In an article about bird flu in the Feb. 28 New Yorker, a virologist in Memphis said, "This is the worst flu virus I have ever seen or worked with or read about."

Here are some points Garrett made to the Self fellows about the virus.

• Sixty-seven percent of the people who've gotten the disease have died. Estimates are that 1 percent of those with Spanish flu died.
• The virus has jumped straight from chickens, which were infected by the ducks and geese, to people. Ordinarily, flu inhabits another mammal, typically pigs, before it jumps to humans.
• The flu has turned up in blow flies. Although malaria has been transmitted by insects, no flu virus has.
• In the second week of March, a health care worker got the bird flu from a patient. Pandemics result from out-of-control human-to-human transmission.

According to Garrett, other environmental and economic factors add still more gloom to the picture.
China, with the fastest growing gross national product in the world, has polluted lakes and streams and cut down forests along the flight path of the geese and ducks.

This leaves the birds nowhere to land, Garrett says, except for farms, where they try to poach food and water from pigs and chickens. In the act, they infect the domestic animals.

At the other end of the problem, vaccine manufacture is difficult and slow -- and unappealing to pharmaceutical companies. They risk a lot making vaccines. When the swine-flu scare of 1976 didn't materialize, the risk whacked their bottom lines.

Six nations can mass-produce vaccines to help in a pandemic, Garrett said. Mexico isn't one of them. In a crunch, we'd likely deny vaccine to Mexico.

At this point Garrett stopped to ask the fellows how, if they were politicians, they'd handle the bird-flu threat.

I've got no space for their answers here, and -- no disrespect intended -- their answers simply don't matter.

Whose do? Above all, those of elected officials.

Now if you're as overwhelmed as I am by the complexity of this problem, ask your representatives what they're thinking.

If they're not, they should be. The 1918 flu circled the globe three times in a year and a half, without the aid of commercial airliners or of the extraordinary megacities that exist today as breeding grounds.

Just imagine.

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