Avian Flu: A Study in Confusion

Preface: back in 2007 when I went from being a freelancer to applying for a real job, I switched dozens of old blog articles to “private” so that a potential employer wouldn’t Google me and find a bunch of opinionated material.

14 years later, I was going through my WordPress instance and the title of this blog caught my eye. Frankly, I don’t remember any of this, and it’s downright weird reading what is essentially a diary entry from 2006—a long time ago!  Anyway, I’ve decided to un-hide the blog post so you can see just how prescient  this ended up being!

A couple months ago in my union health care committee (mentioned in the last blog entry) the chair brought up the topic of the Avian Flu. Apparently a union member had contacted her asking for information about it. What ensued was a lengthy… you know, I can’t use the word “discussion” here because it would suggest a modicum of intelligence. There was a lot of confusion where committee members, some of them quite passionate, made statements that mostly suggested they had no understanding whatsoever of the entire topic.

Now, due to Murray’s Golden Rule of Blogging (Assume anything you write will be immediately read by the person who will be the most offended by it.) I’ll just state that I found the entire exercise frustrating and avoid the details. Some members of the committee put together a single-page information sheet for the upcoming Heath Fair that, in my opinion, really missed the mark on addressing what’s relevant. (It basically advised people not to handle live or dead birds while traveling abroad and to wash your hands a lot.)

I also watched last night’s Daily Show where Jon Stewart mocked the White House’s new 233 page Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan which stated quite clearly the lack of involvement the federal government would have in dealing with a future pandemic on the local level. “Basically, the lesson that the government learned from Katrina was they had done too much.” (audience laughs)

Now, everyone should know by now that I absolutely love Jon Stewart, but for the first time I’m seeing one of his gags as a distortion of an issue where the federal government is actually doing some careful planning, just to get a cheap laugh. What the federal government is doing is explicitly defining what it can and should do—WHO cooperation, medical research, creating a drug stockpile, helping states and localities come up with their own plans. It is also explicitly expressing what it is ill-suited for, which would be the micromanagement of local response efforts. If anything, I applaud them for saying, point-blank: “Local governments have to come up with their own response plans.”

Let me point out a few things that my enlightened readers probably already know, but which few Americans out there seem to grasp:

  1. The Pandemic is an unpredictable event. The Influenza Pandemic is not happening right now. There is no Avian Flu strain that jumps from human-to-human. The concern is that the current strain may mutate into such a form which would almost instantly become a catastrophe. This means that the Influenza Pandemic planning is in many ways identical to planning for a hurricane or an earthquake. Recall that the National Geographic ran an article one year before Katrina that spelled out exactly what might happen if a hurricane hit. Nobody knew when a New Orleans hurricane might hi—it could have been another thirty years from now—but God rolled the dice and we were caught with out pants down.
  2. The government must do FEMA-like planning for this, properly. Again, this is about making ourselves ready to jump into action when a pandemic, be if Avian Flu or Smallpox, decides to hit. The job in front of us is doing proper emergency planning.
  3. Individuals need to put pressure on the LOCAL governments to plan. The Federal Government is the worst entity to deal with local action. This isn’t just because Bush has stuffed a bunch of monkey-brained cronies in all the federal government posts. It’s because micromanaging thousands of localities at the same time is a bad idea. Now coordinating various efforts between communities is their best job, and hey! that’s what they’re planning on. As it happens, the State of California and Los Angeles County have had a pandemic planning summit, and they are making detailed response plans of their own. (Of concern, Los Angeles County send its hospitals some surveys about pandemic planning. A third of the hospitals never completed the survey. Of those who did, a small percentage have done any operational planning. THIS is frightening!)
  4. Individuals should understand their own emergency planning tasks. So, how many of you have 5 days’ drinking water stored in your basements? How many of you have a flashlight (with live batteries) and a battery-powered radio? If you live in an Earthquake zone, what additional things are you supposed to be ready for? I’ve spoken with friends here in L.A. and I haven’t found a single person who has done any sort of emergency preparedness planning.

How many Americans have any understanding of these issues? I’m guessing the number is dismally low. Coincidentally, there’s going to be a 2-hour movie on ABC next Tuesday called “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America”. This will be a dramatization where basically civilization collapses into chaos, crowds are penned in with razor-wire fences, mass piles of bodies are set ablaze… Let’s just say this is going to be anything but a documentary. My big question: will the screenplay give any understanding of the issues I just outlined, or will it just create more “undirected panic” among people who don’t understand the issue.

As always, I’ve got too much on my plate as it is, but I suspect I’m going to begrudgingly take the time to write a real fact sheet aimed at my actors’ union to tell them what we actually can and should do. In some ways, there are things we can plan for by recognizing that the Film & TV business will have some unique challenges. Unlike many businesses that can encourage employees to work from home, you simply have to get a lot of people together in close quarters to make a movie. In the case of actors, you can’t shoot a movie while someone is home sick, so there’s a tendency to keep people working even when they’re ill.

If a pandemic hits, computer models suggest it will take 12-18 months to run its course, involving 2 or 3 “waves” of infection. Maybe planning in the film industry should be akin to planning for protracted labor strikes. (This is good for actors, who can be devastated if they haven’t done the right financial planning. This is bad when producers get good at this, because it diminishes the unions’ bargaining powers if producers learn how to ride-out protracted labor shortages.) My thought: representatives from “Hollywood” should be getting together with local health experts to figure out what the best contingency plans should be.

I’ll finish this blog entry with a reference to a very interesting Wired Magazine article about computer modeling of pandemics. The scientific conclusions are fascinating. (It’s a really good read!) Of greatest interest is the realization that the government’s specific course of action is nowhere near as important as how quickly it starts acting. In effect, if everyone—individuals, companies, local communities and the feds—knew what to do on Day 1 of a detected outbreak, that would be more important that whether we were able to quickly develop an effective vaccine, whether we came up with the optimal quarantine procedures, etc.

Author: Murray Todd Williams

I live in Austin, Texas. I'm enthusiastic about food, wine, programming (especially Scala), tennis and politics. I've worked for Accenture for over 12 years where I'm a Product Manager for suite of analytical business applications.

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