Simple Solutions, Hard Decisions
angry doc managed to watch an interesting documentary titled "Five Ways to Save the World" yesterday. The documentary showed some of the hi-tech solutions some scientists have proposed to fight global warming, including a plan to "put a giant glass sunshade in space" that will "deflect a small percentage of the sun's rays back into space", and "artificial trees" that will remove carbon dioxide from the air which can then be buried deep underneath the ocean floor.
The show ended on the note that while all these hi-tech solutions are potentially viable, we already have a solution that is readily available: to reduce our use of fossil fuels.
Which brings angry doc to this news story:
More worrying than Al Qaeda
Pandemic could spark doomsday scenario: Expert
FORGET bombs and bullets — widespread death and panic is more likely to come from non-traditional sources.
Already, small-scale examples surround us — just look at the ongoing hand, foot and mouth disease outbreak, dengue and the rising cost of rice.
Speaking at the second Asia Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers yesterday, award-winning journalist Laurie Garrett (picture) said that a bird flu pandemic could trigger such a Hollywood doomsday scenario.
"Personally, I am a lot more worried about pandemic flu than Al Qaeda," said the senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Ms Garrett, the only writer to have won the three Big "Ps" of journalism — the Pulitzer, Peabody and Polk Prize — said a pandemic of the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus would cause disaster on a scale far bigger than the world has ever known, surpassing even the greatest flu pandemic of 1918, which claimed an estimated 100 million lives worldwide.
Then, the virus' fatality rate was 2 per cent — H5N1 has killed 77 per cent of the people infected with it.
The H5N1 is believed to be similar to the 1918 flu virus, but is considered by experts to be the worst to have ever surfaced, said Ms Garrett, who described it as being able to cause a fatal "thermonuclear" reaction in the body.
In chickens, for example, the virus causes massive internal bleeding, turning the combs on their heads black.
The world is only beginning to understand the problem, she said. For one, countries are still responding only at the local level, said the author of The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust.
"We have yet to react on a global scale and global infrastructure is not even there yet," she said. "For example, we don't have the capacity to mass vaccinate the whole population. Just look how hard it is for us to do measles and polio, the routine child vaccinations."
There aren't enough sterile syringes to go around, she added.
Petrol, manpower and other logistical infrastructure are also inadequate to execute mass vaccine campaigns, while containment and quarantine facilities are sorely lacking.
The worldwide shortage of healthcare workers and the lack of understanding about how the disease is transmitted and prevented will only exacerbate these problems.
The solutions to these gaps are multi-level, said Ms Garrett. But some valuable lessons from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak underscore the importance of infection control and preparedness.
"What's already in place on a day-to-day basis for routine threats is important, but will not be able to deal with the flu pandemic," she said.
If countries are unable to respond to small outbreaks, such as a rise in flu cases or dengue fever, the effect of a flu pandemic would be "devastating".
"Much more" is also needed to guide the public health responses, she added. For instance, do masks really work, and is hand-washing the best way to stop transmission?
Ultimately, "low-tech" solutions — basic hygiene, personal responsibility, social resilience and community solidarity — remain critical in the face of disaster, she said.
angry doc is not sure how big a threat bird flu will eventually turn out to be, but as the article mentioned, he can already see the cracks in our walls from the Hand-Foot-Mouth disease (HFMD) outbreak.
Despite having our standing surveillance and notification system (yes, the government knows when you are sick) and our ability to put out information to the public via the mass media, we seem to have difficulty breaking the chain of transmission of HFMD.
During the last serious outbreak in 2000, the government had to close down all "childcare centres, kindergartens, enrichment centres, play groups, wading pools and play areas" for a duration of 16 days. While it is not proven that this action directly contributed to controlling the outbreak, it did end soon afterwards.
angry doc thinks it reflects poorly on us as a society that it takes a government action to enforce something which seems like common sense - keep your children at home during an epidemic.
angry doc remembers patients whose parents were more worried about them missing their lessons or exams in school, or arrangements for childcare while they are at work than the public health implications of HFMD, and who would pressurise doctors to give their children the 'all clear' note to return to school, while they still had their ulcers and rashes. angry doc understands their anxiety and concerns, and realises that they stem from an unforgiving system where things are expected to function at peak capacity, leaving little room for occasional illnesses which are actually life's normal occurrences. Still, at the end of the day it is a decision that must be based on one's sense of proportion and social responsibilities, and so angry doc must salute parents who make that decision to voluntarily keep their children away from school during such epidemics.
On the same note, angry doc wonders if the solution to the feared bird flu pandemic may lie in a simpler if more painful decision to end large-scale poultry farming*, instead of a more hi-tech but less certain one like mass vaccination with a yet-unproven vaccine against the disease, as is being undertaken now. Of course, there is no reason why we can't pursue both approaches at the same time - who know? the Japanese may be the ones laughing when the pandemic does strike. If an effective vaccine is found, it will only be part of the solution - making enough of the vaccine and getting it to all those who will need them is another problem to be tackled. And if an effective vaccine cannot be found before the pandemic, then we will perhaps be remembered as the generation who lost so many of their own because of their unwillingness to renounce a steady supply of fried chicken.
* - According to the WHO site "[t]o date, most human cases [of bird flu] have occurred in rural or periurban areas where many households keep small poultry flocks" and not in large-scale poultry farms as angry doc thought. angry doc apologises for the error.
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