This is a guest by Bam Bam
Two independent groups of scientists, one from the U.S. and another from the Netherlands, announced last week that they had created an airborne strain of H5N1. In this article I seek not to assess the morality of creating a Franken-flu, but on the question of what would happen if such a virus escaped. What can we do now to prepare?
Since this would be a novel influenza virus, humans would have no antibodies. That means infection rates would be exceedingly high. How high remains to be seen. If the new airborne strain retains its lethality rates, we can expect morality rates around 60 percent. These two facts alone (low resistance and high mortality rates) affirm that we would have a pandemic on our hands.
What would this look like? Well, for starters, hospitals would be overwhelmed as large numbers of people would likely seek medical attention. The problem is that at this point, there is no effective vaccine for H5N1. There is no cure for the flu. Anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu have been shown ineffective against H5N1.
Worker absenteeism would degrade essential services. Many workers will be too ill to show up. Others will stay home out of fear of contracting the disease. Hospitals will experience disruptions in the delivery of medical supplies. Other essential services, such as food, fuel, and police and fire services, will degrade quickly. We could expect electrical outages as lineman and other workers are unable or unwilling to report for work.
Life as we know it would stop. Children would be unable to go to school. Public gatherings would be scarce to nonexistent, as every outing would pose risk of infection. People could be seen walking in the street with masks on their faces. No one would want to get within three feet of anyone else.
Speaking of the 1918 pandemic, one historian writes:
The pandemic affected everyone. With one-quarter of the US and one-fifth of the world infected with the influenza, it was impossible to escape from the illness. Even President Woodrow Wilson suffered from the flu in early 1919 while negotiating the crucial treaty of Versailles to end the World War (Tice). Those who were lucky enough to avoid infection had to deal with the public health ordinances to restrain the spread of the disease. The public health departments distributed gauze masks to be worn in public. Stores could not hold sales, funerals were limited to 15 minutes. Some towns required a signed certificate to enter and railroads would not accept passengers without them. Those who ignored the flu ordinances had to pay steep fines enforced by extra officers (Deseret News). Bodies piled up as the massive deaths of the epidemic ensued. Besides the lack of health care workers and medical supplies, there was a shortage of coffins, morticians and gravediggers (Knox). The conditions in 1918 were not so far removed from the Black Death in the era of the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages.
To put things into perspective, World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The Spanish Flu claimed 50 million.
There were three flu pandemics in the 20th century. The first, and by far the worst, was the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 which was caused by H1N1. What was so unusual about the Spanish Flu is that it killed healthy young people. The second was the Asian Flu in 1957. The Asian Flu was caused by H2N2 and killed two million people, mostly children and elderly. The third flu pandemic of the 20th century was the 1968 pandemic which surfaced in Hong Kong. This pandemic, mild by historical comparison, killed 33,800 people. It was cased by H3N2.
How long would such disruptions last? If history is any indication, flu pandemics come in waves several months apart with each wave lasting six to eight weeks. There is no way to predict how long such a pandemic would last.
What can you do to protect yourself and your family? Here are some reasonable steps you can take to protect your family. If you can think of other useful steps pack members can take, please add your comments below.
1. Food: Ensure that you have enough food to last at least eight weeks. Choose shelf stable foods such as rice, canned goods, dry goods, cereals and powdered milk. Make sure you have enough variety on hand so that you can actually fix meals. It is important to maintain a healthy diet.
2. Means of Cooking: If electricity is hit and miss, you will need some way to cook. I recommend a Coleman stove with extra fuel.
3. Hydration: Stock up on drinks and drink mixes. I especially recommend an electrolyte replacement drink such as Gatoraid. I like to keep a stash of EmergenC as well. Don’t forget to stock up on coffee and tea. If you are accustomed to caffeine in the morning, you won’t want to run out. Don’t forget to stock up on water as well. Lemonade and other mixes will help as well.
4. Medicine: You should have at least a two-month supply of prescription medications. I also recommend Tylenol or Advil as a fever reducer. Cough drops and other medications will help alleviate the symptoms of the flu. Don’t forget to stock up on vitamins.
5. First Aid Kit: Keep a well-stocked first aid kit on hand. The hospital is the last place you want to be during a pandemic. You might leave sicker than when you went in, or you might not leave at all. Be prepared to treat minor ailments at home.
6. Prevention: Soap and hand sanitizer help enormously, if you use them. Be mindful not to touch your face when you are out in public. Stock up on surgical masks and gloves. Depending on the severity of the pandemic, it may be necessary to wear a facemask and gloves while out in public. M.D. Adds: if possible it would be best to avoid being in public altogether…
7. Hygiene: In addition to soap and hand sanitizer, make sure you have enough hygiene supplies to last you at least two months. This includes toilet paper, feminine products, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, lotion, chapstick, shavers, shaving soap, deodorant and the like.
8. Communications: If electricity does go out, you will want to have a backup radio. Hand-cranked or battery-powered radios are not expensive. You can also find flashlight-radio combinations that come with a hand crank to charge your cell phone.
9. Light: Expect electrical outages. With fewer workers, it will take longer to complete routine maintenance and repairs. Prepare for outages. Make sure you have an extra flashlight on hand and a couple of battery-powered lanterns. (Battery-powered lanterns are unlikely to burn your house down—an important consideration when the fire department is understaffed.) Don’t forget to stock up on extra batteries.
10. Entertainment: You may be shut in for a while. What on earth will you do all day? Electric and Internet service will help but cannot be counted upon. A couple of good books and some old-fashioned board games will go a long way in alleviating boredom. If you have children, you may want to plan some home schooling activities. It will be important to maintain some semblance of routine in the lives of children.