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Children cover their face and pray at their school in Navapur, a farming region in western India where an outbreak of bird flu prompted the culling of hundreds of thousands of birds in February 2006. (AP file photo)

As bird flu spreads, how prepared are we?

ASK THIS | March 19, 2006

Millions of birds have been killed and almost 100 people have died along avian flight paths in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Here are some questions reporters need to ask.

By Barry Sussman

  • Is there a vaccine already developed that can protect people against avian flu?
  • What can people do, if anything, to avoid contracting avian flu?
  • If avian flu reaches a point where it is passed on by people, what kind of contact between them will make it spread?
  • This year, is there any reason for people not to get their normal flu shots?
  • How many companies are capable of producing vaccine for avian flu? Are they producing it now? When will large amounts be ready?
  • Who determines how much vaccine will be produced?
  • What is the role of the World Health Organization, if any?
  • Suppose avian flu starts to spread among humans right now. Could large numbers of doses be produced and administered in time to benefit people?
  • Do we know how to formulate a pandemic vaccine that we can produce quickly?
  • How long would it take a company, starting from scratch, to develop a pandemic vaccine?
  • Do scientists and vaccine companies know what to do, and are they doing it? If not, what is blocking them?
  • Is the U.S. government doing all it can to speed up vaccine production? What is it doing well, what is it doing poorly?
  • What about other governments? Do any stand out as models?
  • If a pandemic occurs, will daily life change radically? For example, will schools close, large workplaces shut down? What would be the effect on subways, restaurants, etc? And how long should we expect a pandemic to last?
  • Are there intellectual property problems right now that may be hindering vaccine development?

The other day, a woman in Egypt died of avian flu; in February two people in Iraq died from it. Almost 100 humans in all have died from the most violent strain—H5N1 bird flu—in China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.  In recent days and months infected birds have been found in Israel, Sweden, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

Most of the deaths have been in Asia. Millions of birds have been destroyed, including domesticated fowl, at a huge loss for farmers.

The main questions about avian flu are whether people who become infected will pass it on to other people, as has occurred in the past and, if so, when. And of course there is one more basic, vital question: How prepared are health authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere to cope with a bird flu pandemic?

According to a 2005 report on this Web site by Harvard scientist Marc Lipsitch, U.S. planning scenarios estimate between 89,000 and 207,000 deaths from a pandemic. But Lipsitch considered those the “best case” assumptions.

Bird flu graphic
A large Washington Post map shows where and to what extent avian flu has broken out.

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