Although the global flu pandemic has been pushed off the front pages by coverage of pop star Michael Jackson’s death and before that South Carolina
Gov. Mark Sanford’s infidelity, the spread of the novel influenza A (H1N1) virus continues at a worrisome rate. The latest data from the World
Health Organization shows that 429 people have died and 94,000 have been infected in more than 70 counties.
As a result, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is seeking at least $1 billion to help poor countries fight the flu epidemic. The money, of course,
would have to come from rich nations.
It’s a tall order, given that the United States and other industrialized countries are struggling to weather the worldwide economic storm and are
attempting to stimulate their own economies with huge amounts of government spending. Indeed, any suggestion that the rich should help the poor is
bound to be met with vehement objection from citizens of the wealthy nations.
But, it would foolhardy for anyone to believe that the spread of the flu virus can be confined to those regions of the world most at risk. The
movement of people around the world means that infections cannot be stopped.
It is noteworthy that the new swine flu virus first caused illness in Mexico and the United States in March and April. It is spread in the same way
that regular seasonal influenza viruses spread, mainly through the coughs and sneezes of people who are sick with the virus. It may also be spread by
touching infected objects and then touching your nose or mouth.
While the strain is mild and most people recover without needing treatment, it could have a more devastating impact in countries with populations
fighting other health problems like AIDS, pneumonia, malaria and tuberculosis.
Hence, Secretary-General Ban’s contention that at least $1 billion is needed to ensure that poor countries get some vaccine doses and antivirals.
World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan has told potential donors that she wants to start a minimum stockpile of vaccines to 49 of the world’s
least developed nations as a first step.
“Many of the developing countries have weak health systems,” Chan said. “They actually go into this pandemic what I call empty handed. They
don’t have antivirals. They don’t have vaccines. They don’t have antibiotics.”
And it doesn’t matter that the rich countries like Britain and France have stockpiles of the antiviral Tamiflu, as well as orders for pandemic
vaccine to cover their entire populations.
When people from rich countries travel to other countries, they are at risk — as illustrated by last week’s report that nine British students on a
visit to the East African nation of Kenya were confirmed to be infected. The students, part of a group of 33, have been quarantined and receiving
medication to attack the virus.
All the students have been confined to their hotel and all have been treated for swine flu.
The students were in contact with the staff of the hotel as well as pupils at various schools they visited.
The declaration of a pandemic — on June 11 the WHO raised the alert level to Phase 6 to reflect the global spread — is not to be taken lightly.
Public health officials are well aware of the ease with which the virus can be transmitted, and no amount of warnings to take special care will stop
That is why the $1 billion or so would be money well spent — by the rich