The news coming out of Mexico City is worrying as 61 68 people are now confirmed dead, and more than a thousand sickened from a new variant of the H1N1 flu virus that has apparently jumped from birds to pigs, and is now easily transmissable through human to human contact. Mexican authorities have closed schools, theaters, libraries and museums in an effort to curb the spread, but with cases now being reported throughout Mexico, and confirmed in both Texas and California, officials at both the US Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are sounding increasingly alarmed over the possibility of a worldwide flu pandemic.
And perhaps the most chilling news…
Most of Mexico’s dead were young, healthy adults, and none were over 60 or under 3 years old, the World Health Organization said. That alarms health officials because seasonal flus cause most of their deaths among infants and bedridden elderly people, but pandemic flus — like the 1918 Spanish flu, and the 1957 and 1968 pandemics — often strike young, healthy people the hardest.
It’s times like this when strong, decisive and well-prepared government leaders can make the difference between life and death. As the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 was killing an estimated 50 million worldwide, Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson preemptively shut down schools, theaters, businesses and other public places in a controversial effort to minimize the local outbreak. Seattle was relatively spared compared to other US cities… and Hanson was literally run out of town by outraged business and civic leaders angered over the loss of revenues and the disruption of the city’s daily routine.
In that tradition, King County Executive Ron Sims has long made the inevitability of another flu pandemic a primary focus of the region’s disaster preparedness efforts, a focus I first learned about back in September of 2005, when I heard Ron talk at a post-Katrina, Red Cross fundraiser.
But rather than talk about New Orleans, he spent most of his time talking about the county’s own disaster preparation efforts. By far their primary focus? Not earthquakes, not terrorist attacks… but avian flu. It was a sobering talk with zero political upside for a man who was in the midst of what was supposed to be a tough fight for reelection, and I came away wishing every voter had the opportunity to talk with Sims one-on-one.
And it wasn’t just talk. Seattle & King County Public Health has a detailed and informative Pandemic Flu Preparedness page, which includes links to videos, fact sheets, resources… even a 12-page comic book available in 16 languages. The agency’s 50-page Pandemic Flu Response Plan is available here.
It is ironic that the legislature is about to slash public health spending exactly at a time we might need it most. And more than a little bit scary.