Leavitt: We're overdue for a pandemic
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt delivered remarks at the health summit about the country's preparation for a pandemic. Following the presentation, U.S. News Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Mortimer B. Zuckerman moderated a question-and-answer session.
SECRETARY MICHAEL LEAVITT: Thank you to U.S. News & World Report for this distinguished opportunity.
My subject today is a difficult one to talk about. Can we just acknowledge that? Pandemics are difficult to talk about because anything you say in advance of a pandemic feels alarmist, but anything we have done once a pandemic starts seems inadequate.
So this is a function of trying to find a balance in preparing: learning to speak about this in ways that will inform but not inflame; learning to inspire communities to prepare, but not to panic.
The fact of the matter is, we when it comes to pandemics, we are overdue, and we're underprepared. And it's necessary that we speak with candor about it and that we move with dispatch to prepare.
Pandemics are a biologic fact of life. They're part of the microbial world of viruses and bacteria and microbes that are constantly mutating, constantly adapting. They are aggressors, constantly seeking more fruitful hosts.
The history of pandemics is not so much the history of public health as it is the history of mankind, because it has been a pandemic disease that truly has have reshaped entire nations, that have affected cultures and politics and prosperity of entire continents. As far as human history has been recorded, whether it is secular history or biblical history, the evidence of these ravaging diseases become prominent.
I go back to Athens, as far back as 400 B.C. Twenty-five percent of that great city wiped out because of a disease. We're not 100 percent sure what it was, but we know it changed the future and course of that entire region.
Roll forward periodically through every century 1400 A.D., the best-known pandemic, Black Death. Twenty-five million people on the continent of Europe died. It reshaped nations. It completely changed their culture. It affected their politics. It affected their prosperity.
Pandemics happen. We've had 10 pandemics in the last 300 years. In the last 100 years, we have had three pandemics: 1968, 1957 both relatively minor pandemics on a scale of pandemics. A lot of people became sick. They were highly efficient, but not many people died. They were not particularly virulent.
However, in 1918, we had what was clearly what has to be considered clearly the world's greatest medical disaster of all time: some 40 million people across the globe perished as a result of this pandemic.
If we were to have in the United States and across the world a pandemic of similar proportion today, 90 million Americans would become ill; 45 million Americans would become sick enough that they would require some kind of serious medical attention, whether that was a clinic visit or a hospital stay. Regrettably, roughly two million people would die.