If initial reports are to be believed, Influenza A (H7N9) is moving fast in China: The World Health Organization reported 11 cases and six deaths as of Friday, and is continuing to monitor the situation and post updates. Will there be more cases? Is this just a minor outbreak of disease in a far off place or the ominous sign that we are on the verge of a dangerous pandemic?
There are no answers to these questions—we can only watch and prepare.
Beginning with the horrendous 1918 flu pandemic (a global outbreak) that killed 50 million people worldwide, there have been four flu pandemics in less than a century. The second was in 1957-58 and the third 1968-69; neither was anywhere near as deadly as the first, thanks to vaccines and improved treatment for those whose infection lead to pneumonia. And then there was the pandemic in 2009-10.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is responsible for collecting and analyzing data on outbreaks and it provides weekly updates on flu activity. The CDC has already created a separate site for H7N9.
Why all the surveillance? Because, as the Trust for America’s Health points out: “Experts predict a severe pandemic flu outbreak could result in up to 1.9 million deaths in the United States, approximately 9.9 million Americans needing to be hospitalized…” Those figures sound like they come from someone pitching a script for a disaster movie. But they aren’t from Hollywood; they come from scientists and public health experts.
Just three weeks ago, President Obama signed the bipartisan legislation renewing the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act. First passed just after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the current legislation renewal got an unfortunate boost from Hurricane Sandy. Natural disasters that require coordinated efforts from local, state and federal authorities are one reason to be prepared. But there are others, not the work of Mother Nature, like bioterrorism and disease outbreaks.
So, what is the effect of sequestration—those drastic, across-the-board cuts to federal agencies and programs—on preparedness efforts? According to the American Public Health Association, the sequestration has put us at greater risk. That, too, sounds like something for a movie script—the government cuts preparedness funds just as the nation has to get ready to confront a disaster. Once again, reality trumps imagination.
With luck, the flu outbreak in China will come to a quick end and the same bipartisan effort that led to passage of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Renewal Act will lead to a bipartisan budget solution that brings an end to the sequester.
You could never pitch that scenario to a producer — but it would be a nice bedtime story.
Janet Golden, a Rutgers University history professor, specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women.
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