By ANN McFEATTERS
Block News Alliance
October 13, 2005
It is a masterfully done book, and it scares the reader's socks off.
Barry, a wonderful writer and thorough researcher who also wrote about the horrific Mississippi flood of 1927 in a rightly honored book, "Rising Tide," chronicles the path of a disease dubbed the Spanish flu _ although it probably originated in Kansas. It killed horribly and quickly and took the lives of at least 50 million and possibly as many as 100 million people around the globe.
Infected people were often the strongest and healthiest. They suffered excruciatingly as their lungs disintegrated. Blood often poured out of their ears, noses and eyes. Sometimes, in just a few hours, they were dead.
As a few brilliant scientists and doctors raced to find a cure to a virus that mutated and became more virulent, Barry wrote that politicians and the media helped spread the terror by minimizing the danger.
The final lesson of the nightmare of 1918, he says, is that "those who occupy positions of authority must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society. Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that... . Leadership must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart."
After two weeks of national agitation over what experts say is an inevitable attack of pandemic or worldwide flu, we know, alarmingly, we are not ready for a disease that could infect as many as half of all Americans and kill two million of them as it races around the globe.
Bush has been extensively briefed on what would happen if the H5N1 strain of bird (avian) flu virus that is attacking flocks in Vietnam, China, Turkey and possibly Europe spreads to humans. He is worried.
But, as he made clear in his press conference _ called so that he could hail his lawyer, Harriet Miers, as his pick for the Supreme Court, not discuss the threat of a global epidemic _ he doesn't know what he would do if there is a major flu outbreak.
A vaccine is desperately needed, but, so far, there has been no breakthrough. Last winter's alarming flu vaccine shortage and the ineffectual hand-wringing in Congress showed that vaccine manufacturers have gone overseas because vaccines are often unprofitable to make. Viruses mutate, and one year's batch of vaccine has to be thrown out the next year.
Bush is mulling over the idea of quarantine, suggesting that as president he'd like to have the option of ordering military troops to prevent Americans from traveling if there is a flu outbreak. The problem is that scientists, anthropologists and sociologists agree that quarantine would not work in today's world to stop the spread of a virulent flu.
This month scientists reported after a decade of work on frozen tissue samples of the lungs of three people who died in 1918 that the influenza virus that caused such massive death was, in fact, a bird flu that jumped directly to humans.
The current avian flu that is frightening officials around the world attacks not just the respiratory system, killing by pneumonia, but also causes secondary but deadly infections, meningitis and destruction of the gastrointestinal tract.
If there is any good news, it is that the virus hasn't yet shown itself capable of spreading from person to person. This isn't 1918; medicine is far more advanced. Millions routinely have taken flu shots and that might help reduce the spread of a new flu.
The ineptitude of the federal response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita correctly has sobered the Bush administration and much of the rest of the world. There is no vaccine. There are not enough hospital facilities or respirators. There weren't even plans to handle hundreds of bodies after a hurricane that had long been predicted. What if there were hundreds of thousands of bodies?
The draft of a U.S. plan to deal with a new pandemic reportedly is a grim document that raises a lot of problems but doesn't provide many answers. Most basically, it doesn't answer a question that proved deadly in New Orleans _ who is in charge?
Barry's book shows that it is ultimately the competence, determination and hard work of a few individuals who decide the fate of millions. Bush must be desperately hoping he is not tested by the insanity of yet another killer.
and The Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com