The more we learn about the current swine flu outbreak, the more it all begins to sound like what happened in 2005, when the world faced a possible pandemic of avian flu. But with the exception of stocking up on Tamiflu, most governments seem to have taken little meaningful action in response to the bird flu scare, and learned few lessons.
In certain ways, the world’s experience with Avian flu may actually have rendered it less, rather than more prepared for a new outbreak. The Daily Telegraph (UK) reported earlier this week on a meeting of scientists held in Austria back in February, before the swine flu had surfaced. There, Harvard professor Thomas Monath warned that because so much attention had been focused on bird flu, if another strain popped up, “we would be screwed.” The Telegraph’s medical editor writes:
He warned vaccine manufacturing capacity is insufficient, meaning that if a pandemic strain of flu emerged now it would be impossible to make enough for the world’s population in time.
The scientific community had become “complacent” about a new flu pandemic because the avian influenza strain H5N1 has been around for 13 years without spreading around the world.
Prof Monath said: “If it’s a new strain of flu it will be nine months to a year before we have got really good geared up vaccine production. We will rely on antiviral drugs first and then it is a crash effort to make a vaccine. In the meantime there will be clearly an emerging uncontained problem,” he said.
A second unlearned lesson has to do with the way we treat our livestock. Here, again, explicit warnings have been ignored. In an excellent piece on Huffington Post, David Kirby outlines the links among the virulent new flu strains and “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), otherwise known as factory farms, where tens of thousands of animals live packed together in poorly ventilated sheds, standing (and breathing) in their own excrement.