Can we ever be ready for the bird flu?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Stroll around certain sections of some cemeteries, and you'll notice that an unusual number of people who died around 1918 passed away at too young of an age.

Young children, young adults, middle aged -- their birth and death dates separated by far too small a number of years.

Yes, some of them were a result of World War I. They're easily identified by military markers or, thanks to veterans groups, American flags, if our visit is timed to be around Memorial Day.

But you might be surprised that some of even those young soldiers were claimed not by an enemy bullet, but by a microscopic virus.

That's because they died from what became known as the Spanish Flu, an influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus that killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide in just 18 months. That included 2.2 million Americans and 90 million others who became ill.

Carried to the United States by returning doughboys, it was first observed at Fort Riley, Kan.

Could it happen again?

We don't know, but experts now have their eye on the H5N1 flu strain, which has the potential to do just as much damage as the H1N1.

Known as the bird flu, H5N1 hasn't yet obtained the ability to spread from person to person. So far, most people with the bird flu contracted it directly from birds or their droppings.

But officials are trying to be ready if it does.

Part of their effort is to assess just how serious the problem could be. For Nebraska, the answer is "plenty."

Because our state is so heavily involved in transportation -- whether Interstate 80, railroads or airlines -- talk about shutting down all travel in case of a flu pandemic should get our attention.

According to a report by the Trust for America's Health, the state stands to lose $4.4 billion in case of a severe outbreak of bird flu, or 6.2 percent of the state's annual output of goods and services.

We'd be among the top five states that could suffer, according to the report, our losses exceeded only by those in Nevada, Hawaii, Alaska and Wyoming.

The tourism industry could expect an 80 percent drop and transportation 67 percent drop in demand, according to the study, a $961 million loss to the Nebraska transportation industry alone.

Other losses include $296 million in hotel and food services, $192 million in manufacturing and $148 million in finance and insurance. Conversely, the health care sector stands to gain some $196 million in case of a pandemic.

Are the authors of the report crying wolf?

One only has to look at the books of businesses that ground to a halt following the New Years Day ice storm to see what a halt in transportation can do.

Will officials be able to foresee all of the consequences of a bird flu outbreak? No.

But planning and preparation of any type is better than none. And, if not for bird flu, groundwork completed now will be valuable whatever emergency arises.

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