As recent events have clearly shown, nature can have a devastating political impact for political leaders. According to a Wall Street Journal poll, just prior to Hurricane Katrina Bush's disapproval rating stood at 55%, with 40% approving of the president and 5% unsure. In the aftermath however, his numbers, according to CBS, slipped yet further: only 38% approved of his overall job performance. While it's unclear what the long term political impact of Hurricane Katrina may be, Americans lost confidence in their political leadership. According to CBS polling data taken after Hurricane Katrina, 34% said they didn't have much confidence in government to respond to natural disasters, and a full 15% said they had no confidence at all. Only 19% said they had a great deal of confidence in the authorities, a truly staggering statistic.
Hurricane Katrina may be just the tip of the iceberg, however. If a severe outbreak of Asian bird flu hits the U.S., Bush's presidency could be severely damaged or even ruined. What is the disease and how is it spread? Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, is caused by the H5N1 virus native to wild water birds. Migratory ducks, geese and herons carry the influenza, and as they migrate they may pass the virus on to domesticated birds such as chickens. H5N1 virus has already devastated bird flocks throughout Asia. What is more, in the last six years the virus has mutated and can now infect and kill humans; as of September 58 people have died. According to the PBS show Wide Angle, there is already some evidence that the virus has spread via human-to-human contact. The antiviral drug Tamiflu has been proven effective against H5N1 in lab testing. Tamiflu, and another drug, Relenza, could be effective against avian influenza if they are taken within two days of symptoms becoming apparent. But, no one really knows if they will work. Indeed, most people that have been hospitalized with bird fly have died. Some had already been treated with anti viral drugs. According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is imminent but no one knows when it might occur.
A Dire Forecast
In the last major avian flu epidemic in 1918, 50 million people died around the world within 18 months. An outbreak of H5N1 could prove equally if not more devastating: worldwide, the World Health Organization is warning that the virus could result in between 50 and 100 million deaths. The Centers For Disease Control report that even a "medium-level epidemic" could result in the deaths of up to 207,000 Americans, hospitalize 734,000, and sicken approximately one third of the U.S. population. Writing in Foreign Affairs however, Laurie Garrett estimates that such a figure is quite conservative. She writes that in the worse case scenario, in which the authorities are unable to produce an effective vaccine fast enough and the virus withstands anti-flu drugs, avian flu could kill up to 16 million people. In the event of an outbreak, some countries might seek to impose ineffectual quarantines or close borders and airports. In that event, trade and travel would be disrupted; stock markets would be dealt a severe blow. With record high levels of worker absenteeism, economic productivity would be dealt a severe blow. What is more, direct medical costs could top $166 billion in the U.S, not including the costs of vaccination.
America's Lack of Preparedness
Given the potential magnitude of such a disaster, why haven't the authorities taken more precautions? The first Asian outbreak of the influenza occurred as far back as 1997, so it's not as if bird flu is some kind of new or unheard of threat. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has warned that "The level of response and resources amount the world's nations is nowhere near the needs for prevention, early surveillance, testing, diagnosis, treatment and the application of modern epidemiological sciences." However, the mainstream media has shirked its responsibility, failing to follow up on Nader's call. Micah Fink, a producer on the recent PBS Wide Angle documentary, "H5N1: Killer Flu," complained that "terrorism and the war in Iraq have dominated much of our foreign coverage and the news hole, never large for international affairs." Though CNN and the likes of weepy reporter Anderson Cooper have devoted a full month of coverage to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the network failed to warn the public in advance of an imminent disaster.
As a result of this media blackout, high public officials have not felt much pressure to address the threat of Asian bird flu. Though Bush recognized the threat of a bio-terrorist attack after the anthrax scare of 2001, federal resources to deal with the threat have been meager. Following the anthrax scare, Congress approved $3.7 billion to strengthen America's public health infrastructure. Two years later, Bush increased funding to the Center For Disease Control's flu program by a whopping 242 percent. Even so, however, such an increase was miniscule: by 2004, the program only amounted to $41.6 million. Bush has also increased flu funding to the National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, but in total spending has amounted to just $67 million. Bush has spent $80 million stockpiling Tamiflu and other influenza drugs, but currently we only have about 2 million vaccine doses.
Public health officials are worried. In an interview on the PBS show Wide Angle, Anthony Fauci, director of the Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, warned, "what we in the federal government need to do, is we need to work with the pharmaceutical companies and help to incentivize them to turn their attention and their resources to being able to have the capability of what we call a surge capacity. Of being able to make 100 or more million doses if we need it within a period of a few months." Fauci admitted, however, that to produce hundreds of millions of doses this would cost a couple billion dollars. That might sound like a lot of money, but consider that the United States spends $5 billion per month on the war in Iraq and the Department of Homeland Security's budget in 2005 amounted to a full $29 billion. This is a pressing and important issue," says Fink, "and I think we should be doing much more than we are doing now." Fink adds,"most of the federal money in the US these days seems be getting spent on terrorism related issues — which may be very short sighted." Though Bush has taken some superficial measures such as ordering the mandatory quarantine of travelers infected with the virus, fundamentally Asian bird flu has not been a serious political priority for George W. Bush. As with Hurricane Katrina, the president seems to be dealing with the crisis on an ad hoc basis. Having failed to address the problem, he recently declared that the army should be deployed in case of an outbreak of Asian flu.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is an agency of the United Nations which is absolutely vital in combating global diseases like bird flu. Since 1947 the WHO has retained a worldwide network that monitors the spread of influenza. Based on the evaluation of WHO scientists, the organization tries to predict which flu strains are likely to spread globally. What is more, the WHO coordinates with pharmaceutical companies so as to speed up vaccine production; oversees laboratories at the global level and arbitrates negotiations over vaccine production. The WHO also plays an important role in that it pushes for greater transparency concerning human and avian flu cases. The WHO isn't the only important UN agency that would help coordinate efforts in the case of an outbreak. The Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO, which collaborates closely with the World Organization for Animal Health, keeps track of flu outbreaks in animals and gives advice to government about culling flocks and herds.
In the event of an actual outbreak, there would no doubt be a rush to point fingers and assign blame. In the high stakes game of Asian bird flu, the Republicans stand to lose. For years, the GOP has clashed with the WHO over such issues as the use of abortion in impoverished areas of the Third World. As the home to the world's larges tobacco company, Philip Morris, the United States has consistently stood in the way of the WHO on the fight against tobacco use. What is more, the U.S. has opposed the movement to make economic anti-HIV drugs available to Third World nations, and rejects findings by the WHO and FAO demonstrating the clear links between chronic disease and diets that are rich in fat and sugar.
More recently, the Republican controlled Congress has been involved in an acrimonious war with the United Nations. In June, the House voted 221 to 184 on H.R. 2745 to cut dues by half to that body if certain reforms are not undertaken. The bill states that the U.S. shall cut off the funds by 2008 unless the Secretary of State certifies that the UN is carrying out operational changes, including stringent budget controls, detailed financial disclosures and creation of an independent oversight office. Finally, the legislation seeks to create a new UN Chief Operating Office. A similar bill is now pending in the Senate. Currently, the United States supplies 22% of the United Nations' annual $2 billion budget. As such, a U.S. cut off could prove devastating. The legislation, coupled with President Bush's appointment of right wing hawk John Bolton as UN envoy seems to signal the Republican desire to kill off the world body.
In the event of an outbreak of Asian bird flu, however, the U.S. will have to coordinate with the United Nations and the WHO. One may easily imagine the calls of public indignation, excoriating the Republicans for their vendetta against the UN and previous unwillingness to collaborate with international bodies concerning important health issues. Certainly, Hurricane Katrina has given the Democrats an opening if they are willing to take shrewd advantage of it. They might claim that the Republicans have no better prepared us for an outbreak of Asian bird flu than the arrival of hurricanes in the Gulf. If there is enough noise on the Hill, perhaps the media too will see the urgency in drawing attention to this vital threat before it strikes.