Unprepared for Bird Flu
Where, moreover, will we find qualified healthcare workers? Few doctors have any experience recognizing and treating this virulent bird flu. There is no easy diagnostic test, and the flu can show up in patients in mysterious ways. The H5N1 strain targets the lungs but can spread to the brain and the gut and appear as an unexplained coma or a diarrheal illness. With bird flu, unlike regular flu, the young seem to face the highest mortality, probably because their robust immune systems overreact to the alien virus with a massive outpouring of destructive inflammatory cells and chemicals. This calls for a different approach to treatment. And healthcare workers themselves will be at risk as they care for patients isolated in pandemic wards. They must be assured top-priority access to antiviral drugs and vaccines when these are ready.
We need a frank and open public discussion if we intend to beat back the many challenges of caring for the sick in a time of pandemic. Catapulting medical care half a century backward is not inevitable, even if it looks that way at the moment, and the prospect is instantly abhorrent if you imagine that you, or those you love, are among the flu-stricken. Already, I see visions of Katrina: finger-pointing as the census of lost souls begins to add up, the feds faulted for not bringing in the cavalry. It doesn't have to be.