Health ministers from 30 countries convened in Ottawa on Monday to devise a plan to stop the spread of bird flu. The two-day Global Pandemic Readiness Conference is the largest international meeting to date, as governments and international health organizations scramble to squelch H5N1, the deadly strain of avian influenza that has killed more than 60 people in Asia.
Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, warned the ministers not to focus exclusively on preparations for a possible outbreak of avian flu in humans, but to spend more time and money on stopping its spread among birds. “It doesn’t look to us quite rational that we would be ready to spend so much money on the second line of defence and then on the first line of the combat field, we’re not putting even $100 million,” said Diouf.
This is very good advice, for a number of reasons. It’s much cheaper to pay Asian farmers to destroy thousands of geese and chickens right now than it will be to destroy birds across Europe and the Americas if the disease continues to spread.
Diouf also emphasized that while everyone fears that the virus could spread from person to person, the most effective way to prevent a human pandemic is to stamp out the animal one as quickly as possible.
But perhaps the best reason for people around the world, and Canadians in particular, to focus our efforts on birds is our terrible track record in dealing with the spread of contagious diseases among humans.
Take Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) for example. It first appeared in China in late 2002 and killed over 800 people around the world in less than a year. Canadian health officials knew in early 2003 that SARS was spreading and that it was extremely infectious. When an elderly lady died soon after returning from Hong Kong, doctors at her Toronto hospital attributed it to tuberculosis. Under the circumstances, this was excusable; tuberculosis is a common illness among the elderly.
What happened next, however, was not excusable. Her son also contracted the disease, went to the hospital, and after waiting many hours and exposing many people, doctors concluded that he also had tuberculosis, albeit a highly infectious strain. They quarantined him, and he died soon afterwards, but the man who lay next to him in the hours before he was misdiagnosed was infected. He and his wife were treated, but his wife wasn’t quarantined and she infected more people at the same hospital. The disease continued to spread and it ended up killing 44 people in Toronto before it was finally brought under control. Instead of helping to stop the spread of SARS, the overcrowded and understaffed hospital became an incubator for the infection.
Then we have the current outbreak of legionnaires’ disease in the Seven Oaks nursing home in Toronto. Once again the health system of Canada’s largest and most modern city failed to deliver. When elderly residents of Seven Oaks first started to get sick, medical officials used an outdated test that failed to detect the presence of Legionella bacteria in the ventilation system. They then mistakenly ruled out legionnaires’ disease as a possibility, running test after test for other illnesses while the disease continued to spread. As a result, 127 people contracted the “mystery illness” before it was correctly identified. 21 people have died so far, and others remain in critical condition.
Contrast these disasters with Canada’s excellent record of dealing with outbreaks in animals. In January 2003, cattle inspectors at a slaughterhouse in Alberta spotted a sick cow and immediately isolated it from the others to prevent it from going into the food supply. Samples from the cow were sent to labs in the UK, and they confirmed the presence of mad cow disease.
Federal and provincial agriculture officials reacted promptly and effectively, quarantining several ranches and slaughtering over 1400 cattle to inspect for the disease. No other case of mad cow was found since, and the U.S. and other countries commended Canada for its handling of the case.
Last year there was an outbreak of a different strain of avian flu on chicken farms in the Fraser River Valley in B.C. Once again, farmers and agriculture officials wasted no time slaughtering 19 million birds to successfully prevent the virus’ spread.
Canada has credibility and experience in containing outbreaks of animal diseases. Our government should use its position as host of this conference to push for a massive increase in funding for veterinary services and farmers’ compensation in Asia, where the outbreak of bird flu is concentrated.
It makes sense to focus our resources on eradicating avian flu in birds, because it’s the best tactic for defeating the disease. But it’s also a way of playing to our strengths: As today’s headlines continue to remind us, the Canadian healthcare system is ill prepared to deal with any kind of outbreak among humans.
Neglected Story of the Week: The financial world held its collective breath on Monday as President Bush announced the successor to Alan Greenspan, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Greenspan has led the Fed for 18 years, longer than any of his predecessors. He’s received considerable credit for the strong economy of the 1990s, the quick recovery from recession in 2000 and for the overall stability of the economy. But everyone knew the soon-to-be-octogenarian economist couldn’t do it forever. Banker and businessman alike prayed that the fickle markets would bless his heir.
To the great relief of thousands of stockbrokers’ wives, the markets reacted well to the naming of 51-year-old Ben Bernanke as Greenspan’s heir. Bernanke has served on the Federal Reserve Board for three years, and has headed Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors since June. The former Princeton economist is expected to follow in Greenspan’s footsteps, though everyone agrees he’s got huge shoes to fill.