Saturday, October 30, 2004

Another Reason Bush Must Go

One of the reasons I'm desperate to have a president who believes in science is the ongoing situation with the H5N1 strain of avian flu (see my archives for several other posts on this).

Though a recent case that was thought to be the result of human-to-human transmission turned out not to be, there's an ever-increasing danger of the virus mutating in that direction. The H5N1 death rate in humans is currently at staggering 70 percent (by contrast, the 1918 pandemic killed only about five percent of the people it infected). Even allowing for a somewhat lower death rate in first-world countries, we're facing a disease with the potential to be both as contagious and as deadly as smallpox. This is a danger that dwarfs any conceivable terrorist threat, with the possible (though far less likely) exception of an attack with bioengineered pathogens.

If the Bush administration has lifted a finger to deal with H5N1, it's news to me. The WHO and governments around the world are calling for a massive stockpiling of H5N1 vaccine, but BushCo's response - if it exists - is very low-key indeed. I find no evidence that the administration has addressed the problem at all.

The current US vaccine shortage directly affects the likelihood of H5N1 mutation. While spontaneous mutation is always possible, there's an additional danger of mutation from human co-infection with human and avian flu viruses. That means that it's essential to inoculate poultry workers in poorer countries like Vietnam, where birds and people are crowded together in filthy conditions. But such countries have almost no human flu vaccines available. And with flu season beginning in the US and Europe, and huge shortfalls in vaccine production, there's none to spare for them.

As influential as game theory is supposed to be among the economic elite - and as well known as the Prisoner's Dilemma is - the basic lessons don't seem to have taken hold. You cannot allow the Invisible Hand to make public-health decisions; it doesn't work, and it never will. The temptation to cut costs and corners in public health, and to take huge risks in order to maintain the bottom line, is a recipe for disaster, but it's a course the free market tends to favor strongly.

There still may be time to mitigate the situation by stockpiling vaccines and anti-virals, but that'd take huge amounts of money and coordination, and that would take intelligent, engaged, focused leadership by the United States. This issue alone is reason enough to vote for John Kerry, who is at least capable of understanding the issue, whether or not he does at the moment. Bush doesn't and can't understand issues like these, and neither does anyone around him. This is just one more reason why we can't afford - and might not survive - four more years of BushCo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The 'economic elite' don't much give a damn, because they think money enhances their own immune systems, and that really is all the farther ahead they think. They can't concieve of a world that won't have poor people for them to use, either.

And the whole thing reminds me of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death", which I'm going to have to find and see if I remember it correctly from junior high English.

Nick Carraway