Bird Flu True to Form? A Pandemic Scenario
Lee tried to stifle a sneeze but couldn’t. Invisible to the naked eye, a cloud of almost five thousand virus-filled droplets launched into the air at some 150 km/ hour or roughly 100 mph. Some passengers in the wide-body Airbus frowned. The Hong Kong to London flight was long and no one wanted to catch a cold.
Lee planned to fill every waking moment of his stay in London. A concert at the Millennium Dome, dinners at some of the finest hotels, shopping in crowded malls – “What a chance,” Lee thought. All he had to concentrate on was a few hours in front of the International Board. It was his job to present sales trends in China to the bosses who were also winging it towards Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports. “The global executives will get only good news from me,” figured Lee. “Pity I don’t feel better …”
Lee was exhausted. He had a cough, scratchy throat, runny nose and muscle aches. A fever started but it wasn’t until Lee began having difficulties breathing that he decided to get help.
Doctors huddled in subdued discussion. Experts were rushed in. It was finally determined that Lee’s body was fighting strenuously against two viruses. Lee had caught a highly infectious Influenza A virus – a flu bug. However, at much the same time he had also picked up a second virus called H5N1. The two viruses had mixed their genes and formed a hybrid. Since this was now a radically new pathogen, Lee had no immunity to it.
Lee was not the only one in this fight. Infected passengers from Lee’s plane from Hong Kong had connecting flights to major cities in most continents. The global executives Lee had addressed at the office had also flown home diseased. Sadly, some of the medical staff where Lee was diagnosed had also caught it not to mention the crowds Lee had interacted with at concerts, restaurants and on shopping sprees. The so-called Bird Flu or Avian Influenza had indeed spread its wings. It was the start of the first flu pandemic of the 21st century.
Had Lee or any of the others known in time, they would have taken anti-viral drugs hoping to block or at least slow down the replication of the virus. At least the severity of some symptoms might have been eased not to mention a reduction in the duration of sickness. But time had run out - anti-viral medication needed to be taken within 48 hours of the first stages of the disease.
It wasn’t long before Lee was put on a respirator in quarantine. It also wasn’t long before the media found out Lee had Bird Flu. The public became nervous. The number of flu patients – real or imaginary – multiplied dramatically but nurses and hospital staff were strangely missing … using overdue holiday time or just not showing up for work at all. It was announced that schools, restaurants, and non-essential businesses would be closed. No deadline was given – no one knew for sure how long the measures would have to be in place.
The Public Announcement
Wisely, the public was advised to stock up on food and water. Newspapers advised people to stock up on toothpaste, toilet paper and treasure (cash). People were told to shop at off-peak hours and public transport was ordered to run 24 hours per day. But despite warnings to the contrary, doctor’s offices, hospitals and clinics were overrun. Faces masked in paper waited for hours in front of pharmacies in hope of getting relief. Despite clear instructions from health officials, panic broke out as folk finally fathomed that at best only one third of the population had access to anti-viral drugs. In rural areas and smaller towns, there wasn’t any chance at all.
The Short-term Havoc
Rumors and half-truths began to circulate causing public outcry and protests. Because the protests only helped spread the flu, quarantines were set in place. The public was told to stay at home indefinitely. Vibrant cities screeched to a halt as public transport shut down. Streets stank as garbage piled up. Shops were looted and in some cases those caught coughing were stoned. Safety services (fire, police, ambulance) were disrupted, fires burned out of control. Cross-border travel was curtailed killing tourism and all international sports events were cancelled. Food imports were banned creating shortages of meat, vegetables and wheat. Folk with chronic medical illnesses couldn’t get their medications. Soap and disinfectants – perhaps the simplest and most effective fight against the spread of disease – were in short supply; no one had thought to stock-pile soap.
Local governments and health organizations began to squabble over who had the power to do what. The question was of legalities: who would control distribution of anti-viral drugs and who would receive those drugs? Army barracks received attention but prisoners were ignored. Families with pets were labeled as ‘higher risk’ groups but no-one knew if these families should receive more help or less. As in-fighting became more severe, decision processing became more difficult. Who should give the daily press briefings? Who would organize mass cremation? Who would facilitate conferences for global medical meetings? The list grew rapidly.
The first wave of the pandemic was over in three months time but not the shock. Bacterial disease such as cholera multiplied rapidly with catastrophic results across Africa and Asia. The longer-term, global recession began with the realization that supply-lines, manufacturing and food-production chains were desperately weakened through labor loss. Medical facilities were terribly understaffed. As usual, the poor had little chance of aid at all. And then came the second wave of Avian flu. It took over a year before the waves of sickness and death became controllable.
Lee actually survived it all. Although he “started” the pandemic, he also helped “end” it. Doctors used his blood to find the initial vaccine. Since Lee was also now immune, he not only volunteered to help where he could and also founded the World Association of Sensible Hygiene (WASH). More importantly, Lee and others like him helped disrupted societies regain their faith and hope and love. Since this was pandemic number 11 in the last 300 years, history had taught that it was inevitable that individuals and communities and countries would bounce back fairly quickly. But a bitter question remained. Would Lee and the rest of the world be better prepared for the next pandemic? Lee wondered that too as he bordered the wide-body Airbus destined for Mexico City.
About the Author: Paul Madrid is a minister and author of several publications and web sites including "H5N1, avian (bird) flu and you."