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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Feverish activity

Better late than never. The Bush administration that launched a massive nationwide response to anthrax and smallpox threats that have not materialized, has finally recognized a more significant infectious disease threat. But in typical fashion, it looks to reward friends while using the wrong tools in the box.

Ask infectious disease specialists which poses a greater threat to Americans and there is no hesitation: influenza. And that was before the growing and apparently real concern that a new strain of avian flu hatched in Asia could be a trigger in a long overdue pandemic.

Years in the making, a new administration task force report declares we are woefully unprepared for a pandemic. As Homer Simpson would say "d'oh."

Let's step into the Wayback Machine, actually just a few short years ago. The time October 2001. Letters containing anthrax arrive at the offices of then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and then NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw. Other letters wind up at the editorial home of the National Enquirer and other publications.

What's happened since then? The perps are still on the loose (despite on global war on terrorism); an ill-conceived plan to produce enough antibiotics to counter the threat died virtually at birth -- larger from the indifference or hostility of the health care workers who ostensibly would benefit.

Same response to administration efforts to mobilize defenses against smallpox -- a deadly disease that has been virtually eradicated except for some sample left in the freezers of scientific labs in the US and Russia. Plans to create elaborate quarantine rings and mass inoculations faltered and eventually died.

Meanwhile, the real threat, plain 'ol influenza, was ignored. One of the handful of remaining producers had to discard its vaccine supply because of contamination in the manufacturing process.

Why so few manufacturers for a product in worldwide demand? It's not a wise business move for the pharmaceutical companies. If scientists guess wrong on the flu strain expected to cause problems any given year, the pharmas will be left with lots of worthless product to discard. And you know their margins are so thin....

So what's W's solution to the flu problem (which again, is not necessarily an avian flu problem)? Call up the military and bail out the pharmas. Have our soldiers enforce quarantines and protect the drug manufacturers from liability if the product harms people.

Trouble is: are quarantines the right answer in a world that has changed dramatically since 1918, the year of the last major pandemic? I'm sure troops could easily handle all the people who flew in from Asia in 1918.

And what about the pharmas? Yes, I know they are going to hard against it supplying Medicare prescriptions at unregulated prices. But what about that Bush philosophy of charity, of giving back to the common good?

Oh yeah, that only applies to people who can't afford to take care of themselves, not fat-cat multi-billion dollar cash machines.


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