May 10, 2006

Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, ABC and the H5N1 Pandemic

Many Americans learned about the Avian Flu for the first time last night. The ABC dramatization, Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, of the pandemic flu is based on a plausible scenario as the country reels from an attack of a highly virulent strain of pandemic flu.  Many scientists believe that like the show's scenario, the current H5N1 virus that has mainly struck the bird population across Asia and Europe could be the source of just such a scourge.

Like previous flu viruses that have passed from the bird population to humans, H5N1 presents a number of serious threats.  Because it represents a new strain, humans have no natural immunization to the disease. Once established, flues tend to spread rapidly through the populaton. In previous viruses of this type, the immune systems of young healthy adults tend to overreact fatally to the unrecognized threat, causing something that has been dubbed a cytokine storm.

These deaths, because they occur in the most active group in the population, cause a rippling effect.  Without this important manpower, critical infrastructure, health, supply, service and security systems can break down with dire results.

In the ABC dramatization,   viewers are presented with a scenario in which large numbers of people become sick and die in the first wave of the pandemic while supplies of food, fuel and basic goods and services fail, and order collapse across parts the country. The show portrays price gouging, ordinary people looting and fighting over food and other necessities as well as mob lawlessness in downtown New York as marauding bands attack vital supply chains for high value medicines.

In this depiction, the flu travels from China to the US within hours of the first outbreak of a newly mutated virus that is able to pass readily from human to human.  In several days the US is facing a deadly flu outbreak that quickly spreads beyond hastily set up quarantine lines. As the flu strikes the active population, the system lurches, then grinds to a near halt  Just-in-time supply chains fail, hospitals fill, the general population panics as it treats diseased love ones, and looks to the authorities for anticipated leadership and solutions, faces shortages, widespread confusion and performs the grim task of disposing of the mounting fatalities.

Amplifying on the experience of the deadly Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918-1920, in which a second more deadly wave was followed months later by a third wave, the drama ends with a scene in Africa where an entire village is wiped out by what appears to be a much deadlier mutation of the virus. We are left watching  a flock of wild birds flying across a verdant valley in Angola.

Because it portrays what was described by NIH head Antonio Fauci  a "worst case scenario" the show  has been greeted with controversy from a number of quarters including some of the leading warning voices in the avian flu community. The reserve expressed by some scientists, even those who have worked tirelessly  to raise awareness about the pandemic flu's deadly potential, is that the ABC drama Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America may have the impact of "sensationalizing" what is a real and serious threat.   They fear the public will treat the drama as just another scare show and will discount it as fiction. Others, especially those who argue that  the Avian Flu has already been "hyped" out of proportion, have argued that the show may lead to panic.

But real panic is more likely to occur should the H5N1 make the changes necessary to transmit easily from human to human.  Especially when the public finds out that drugs like Tamiflu and Rilenza have little or no effect and worse, that there is no vaccine generally available, at least during the first and possibly even the second wave.

So far this morning there have been no reports of supermarkets being overrun by shoppers on hoarding binges. Somehow we doubt there will be any. No doubt, some viewers will treat  Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America as highly exaggerated entertainment but it does serve to get the word out to many people, perhaps a whole new audience, in one night; perhaps, more than all of the previous news reports

The power of prime time TV to get a message out is enormous. We hope the show will make clear to those responsible for allocating and carrying out preparations for a pandemic, that without diligent, well funded, carefully thought out plans, The H5N1 virus brings with it the real potential for what the show portrayed and maybe even worse.  For an audience being introduced  to this scourge for the first time, the takeaway should be an admonition to make real personal preparations such as storing drinking water, canned and dry foods, sterilizing soaps , cleansers and surgical level face masks, emergency lights and batteries, etc. The public needs to actively urge local authorities to action as well as  participate in community planning events.

Even if we have to face an outbreak worse than the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu episode, most of us will survive.  The greatest problems will be in how we find a way to cope with shortages of necessities and vital supplies, unimaginable personal losses and a potential breakdown of services and even law and order. History tells us that pandemics are inevitable.  Our preparations now could make all the difference.  They won't be wasted.

Posted by dymaxion at May 10, 2006 10:48 AM
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