To flee or to fly in a flu
By John D. Turner
29 Apr 2009

Emergency: 1. An unforeseen or sudden occurrence, esp. of danger demanding immediate action. 2. State of emergency; a time of crisis, declared by a government, during which normal laws and civil rights can be suspended. –

It’s a national health emergency – but no cause for alarm; so said President Barack Obama on Monday concerning the Swine flu outbreak in Mexico that reportedly has killed 150 people so far and sickened thousands. Here in the US, there are now 91 confirmed cases and the government has said it is shipping millions of doses of antiviral medication from federal stockpiles to states along the Mexican border and other locations where the virus has been detected.

So which is it? Is it an emergency or not? It can’t be both. If it is an emergency, we should, by definition, be concerned. If we are not to be concerned, then by definition, it cannot be an emergency.

Certainly the government is not acting as though it is an emergency, even though they have officially declared it as such. The border with Mexico remains open, despite the fact that Mexico seems to be the epicenter of the problem. According to Janet Napolitano, we are doing “passive surveillance” at the border – whatever that means. Closing the border is not warranted since you would only do that if you thought it would contain the spread of the disease. Since cases have already been seen here, attempting to arrest the spread by keeping infected people out would obviously be futile.

For the same reason, I guess, we are not screening incoming airline flights into the US either.

We are simply in preparation mode”, Napolitano is quoted as saying. “We do not yet know how widespread this flu will be within the United States.” And since we are not doing anything to actually prevent the spread, I suppose we will find out how widespread it is as it becomes widespread.

So what have we done to address the problem so far?

The government had declared an emergency, but told us there is no cause for alarm. A travel advisory has been issued for Mexico, urging Americans to avoid all nonessential travel there. They have told us to wash our hands, cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze, and to not go to school, work, or any place where you could infect other people if you feel sick. Oh yes, and the government is moving stockpiles of antivirals. That’s it. To quote Ms. Napolitano again, “We believe at this level the appropriate precautions have been taken.”

Really? That’s it? Other countries seem to think that additional measures can and should be taken.

In Mexico itself, people are wearing masks. In the US, not really. In Asia, they are screening passengers with thermal scanners to see if anyone debarking is running a fever. If they are, they are taken aside and checked. (Although there are now reports that this may not catch people who are infected but have not yet presented symptoms.) Australia is requiring pilots on international flights to file a report if anyone on the plane displays any flu-like symptoms before the plane is allowed to land.

The European Union’s health commissioner has urged Europeans to forgo non-essential travel to the US and Mexico. France has asked the EU to suspend all flights going to Mexico. Russia has banned the importation of all raw and cooked meats from Mexico, and the states of Texas, California and Kansas in the United States. Raw pork from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Florida, and countries in Central America and the Caribbean are also banned.

In Egypt, the government has ordered the slaughtering all of the 300,000 pigs in the country as a precautionary measure; this despite the fact that no cases of this disease in pigs in Egypt have been reported. It’s enough that the media has labeled it the “swine flu”. (Two cases in pigs have been reported in Israel; as of this writing however this is unsubstantiated).

Good thing the media didn’t report it as the “human flu”…

Confirmed cases have been found now around the world, including New Zealand, Spain, Israel, and South Korea, to name a few. All have one thing in common; they developed the illness after traveling to Mexico. But despite the fact that Mexico seems to be the epicenter of the outbreak, Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova has stated that no one knows where the outbreak began, going so far as to imply that it may have originated in the United States.

“I think it is very risky to say, or want to say, what the point of origin or dissemination of it is, given that there had already been cases reported in southern California and Texas,” Cordova told a press conference.

Certainly it might be risky for the tourism industry in Mexico to say it started there. But you know, at this point I think that the Mexican tourist industry is going to take a hit whether you say so or not. With thousands of cases across Mexico, and over 150 fatalities so far vs. a hand full of cases elsewhere, it seems pretty clear where the point of origin is, regardless of what Mr. Cordova says.

Of course, you never know. It may have been a CIA plot…

This brings us back to the United States. It really doesn’t matter where it started; it exists and now has to be dealt with. And it really doesn’t matter to me what other countries are doing about it; what matters to me is what our country is doing about it, particularly since I am sitting here in San Antonio, a major crossroad only a couple of hours from the border with Mexico.

My government is telling me that we will have to wait and see how it plays out. We aren’t going to do anything to attempt to arrest the spread; we will attempt to deal with the problem after it manifests itself instead. Be sure to wash your hands!

So we can’t close the border. That might be interpreted as racist and intolerant. We can’t screen passengers on incoming flights – that might be interpreted as profiling and discrimination against sick people. Besides, don’t we owe it to anyone who is sick and can make it across our borders to receive free treatment in our hospitals?

Personally, I think we should send them all to Cuba. Why provide them substandard treatment here in the United States, when the best health care system in the world is conveniently located right there 90 miles off the coast of Florida? At least according to Michael Moore and others in the Hollywood elite.

But lest you think that the US government is sitting on its hands during this declared emergency, never fear! The politicians are hard at work to save us behind the scenes.

For one, we have a new Secretary of Health and Human services. The appointment of Kathleen Sebelius, which had been held up by Republicans concerned with her stand on abortion and other issues, was rushed through on a 65-31 Senate vote on Tuesday. How, after all, can we fight the swine flu emergency (about which we are not supposed to be alarmed) without someone at the helm of HHS?

"We find ourselves in the midst of a global crisis," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "What we've been missing in all of this is the head of the Health and Human Services Department."

"We wanted to swear her in right away because we've got a significant public health challenge that requires her immediate attention," President Obama said, standing beside the last Cabinet official to win Senate approval.

There’s no need to fear! Super Sebelius is here! Nothing like a good crisis to break up that political log jam!

Actually, someone was in charge. Someone is always in charge. But the person who was temporarily in charge was a holdover from the Bush administration. And you remember how badly the Bush administration botched Katrina; we can’t have a repeat of that debacle under this administration!

We also do not have a surgeon general or new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His choice to run the Food and Drug Administration has not been confirmed yet either.

What an opportunity to ram through your picks for all these posts! It fits right in with Raum Emanuel’s admonishment not to let a good crisis go to waste. Who else and what other goodies can we piggy-back onto the back of the piggy flu?

Any bets as to whether more elements of national health care will be rushed into law?

I started writing this article on Monday. On Monday, as I mentioned in my opening, the President said that there was no cause for alarm. Now, it is Wednesday. Now, according to the President, it is time for the “utmost precautions”.

Of course, “utmost” still does not include shutting the border or screening airplane passengers, or restricting travel to Mexico. But it does sound better than “don’t worry, be happy”, and “wash your hands.”

Your government is expressing its concern.

So what changed? Well, the United States experienced its first Swine Flu fatality. Sort of.

I heard on the radio on the way in to work this morning that a two year old child had died in Texas. Reuters reported that, in the first confirmed death outside Mexico, a 23-month-old Texas child had died from the swine flu. As usual, the press neglected to get the full story before rushing to print. Or perhaps they just wanted to present their slant on the news.

While it is true that a 23-month-old child died, and the child died in Texas, and it is the first death from the swine flu to be documented in the United States, it turns out that the child in question is not a “Texas child”, but rather a child from Mexico. The child was not living in Texas, but just visiting.

The child, who lived in Mexico City, flew (presumably with his parents) to Matamoros on April 4th, and crossed into Brownsville to visit relatives. He came down with a fever on 8 April, and other flu-like symptoms presented. He was transported for treatment to Texas children’s Hospital in Houston, where he died on Monday the 27th of April. The CDC confirmed he died of the virus today on the 29th. No one else who was in contact with the child is apparently ill, and so far, there have been no reported Houston-area cases of the virus.

I grieve for the parents. No parent ever wishes to lose a child. I cannot even imagine how that must feel, and pray to God I never know.

However the fact remains that, as of now, there are no actual US fatalities due to this flu, nor any other fatalities world-wide other than Mexican nationals; which is strange, but true. Does this mean that only Mexican nationals will die of this illness? No, it just means that is the case so far. However, the disease does not seem as virulent as once believed. It should be noted that the flu is and of itself, a deadly disease. Between 250,000 and 500,000 people world-wide die of the flu each year; on average, 36,000 here in the United States.

What is different about this flu is that at present, we do not have a vaccine against it. But then again, the usual “flu shot” we get every year does not protect us against every known type of flu either. Usually it protects against 2-3 strains that doctors think will likely manifest themselves in the coming flu season. The fear is that this new flu will be like the “Spanish Influenza” of 1918 where millions died around the world including between 500,000-675,000 here in the United States. Estimates are that between 2.5 and 5% of the world population died. The death rate varied by location. Infection rates were up to 50% and the disease killed between 2 and 20% of those infected.

Infection rates and death rates for the current “swine flu” are at present unknown.