As President Obama's first 100 days draw to a close, another potentially deadly challenge has been added to the myriad complex problems he has been thoughtfully working his way through. Identified as "Swine Flu" or the N1H1 flu virus, it has a potential to become a global flu pandemic.
The new president started out already waist-deep major problems left by Mssrs. Bush and Cheney. Two wars in the Middle East, America's battered international image, and an economic nightmare are just part of Mr. Obama's to do list. To date, he has received high approval ratings for his leadership. A global flu pandemic on top of what we already face is tough to even imagine.
I read John M. Barry's "The Great Influenza" a few years ago. Barry meticulously details the "Spanish Flu" of 1918. His finely researched narrative left me astounded at the far-reaching damage a ravaging pandemic can cause. It is generally agreed that a flu outbreak on a Kansas farm originating from farm animals infected soldiers in Kansas who quickly spread the disease to other soldiers headed for the WWI front in Europe.
It became known as the Spanish Flu because Spain was one of the only countries left with a free press and they reported on the panic with detailed accounts of how those infected bled from the nose and ears and turned blue from lack of oxygen. Helpless victims suffered aches saying they felt like their bones were being broken. Death came quickly. The rampaging pandemic killed more people in one year than the plagues of the Middle Ages killed in a century. A third of the world's population were infected and worldwide deaths are estimated at between 50 and 100 million.
In the United States, as troops mustered in huge cantonment camps across the nation preparing to ship out to the war in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson, a conservative Democrat and religious fundamentalist, clamped down on press freedom. Citing patriotism and the need to keep Americans on a righteous and patriotic path, he personally prevented even a mention of the raging flu. A public health official in Philadelphia even allowed young soldiers to mingle with the public during a parade. The bureaucrat noted that, "It is not patriotic to establish guidelines to protect the civilian public." Whole ships, loaded with sick and contagious troops were sent on to Europe rather than admit openly that there was a problem. They were aptly called "death ships" with most of the troops dead or wretchedly ill as they arrived in European ports.
The mass movement of people to and across Europe hastened the spread of the virulent flu. In the USA, people were most infectious to others during the days before they experienced any symptoms themselves. Globally, an estimated 2 to 2/5% of those who came down with the flu died. In the fall and winter of 1918 more people died from influenza than from any other pandemic before or since.
This Sunday afternoon, unlike Woodrow Wilson, the White House declared a "public health emergency" and the center for disease control announced, “We expect to see more cases of swine flu. As we continue to look for cases, I expect we’re going to find them.”
Politics remain at play as the seriousness of the current swine flu outbreak is assessed. The World Health Organization is taking its characteristic cautious stance calling the present flu outbreak in Mexico that has already killed more than 80 and infected another 1,900, “a public health emergency of international concern.” The W.H.O. is holding off till Tuesday to announce if it will raise the threat level. Dr. Keiji Fukuda, deputy director general of the W.H.O. is reported to have said, "Raising the threat to level 4 “would be a very serious signal that countries ought to be dusting off pandemic plans.” The level is currently a 3 on a scale of 6. (Ed Note: Now raised to level 5, April 29th)
So, here we are at the early, early stages of a strain of flu that seems to have developed in pigs and birds, mutated into a unique virus that is now being transmitted directly from human to human. Mexico seems to be the originating point. Already milder cases are being reported and identified across America and also mild cases are now being reported in Canada and New Zealand, and it has reached Europe.
We have learned a great deal about combating pandemics, and have new medicines and vaccines that were nonexistent in 1918. But is is sobering to realize that by the early 1990s, 75 years of research had failed to answer a most basic question about the 1918 pandemic: why was it so fatal? In recent years we have made some progress, but there are still lots of unanswered questions.
Today human fear and uncertainty remain pretty basic. A growing number of Americans are already barely living on the edge following loss of jobs, homes, savings, and face health care that is out of reach because of lack of insurance. America's vulnerability to a sweeping killer flu pandemic is doubly frightening today because so many families are already terribly weakened from the results of another endemic disease . . . greed.
Fat greed that grew and mutated while the host banks and financial giants flourished. Then just like in some farmyard in Mexico the greed genes intermingled, mutated and became toxic. We are already fighting the results of a pandemic of unregulated greed. Now real swine instead of figurative pigs once again spawn a physically life-sapping virus.
If ever there was a need for cool, serious and effective leadership and consensus, it is today. This also is a chance for detached conservative Republicans to get over their loss at the polls, and instead of throwing tepid tea parties, to come together and join in positive action to see America safely through what could be even tougher times ahead.
Swine flu is non partisan.
Graphic by Larry Ray