1918 All Over Again?
November 9, 2005
By Gene C. Gerard
Last week President Bush put forward a program to prepare for the
eventuality of a bird flu pandemic. In his comments Mr. Bush noted,
"If history is our guide there's reason to be concerned."
In fact, the influenza pandemic of 1918 is a model for what we are
likely to face with the bird flu. And unless the Bush administration
responds more boldly we will relive the 1918 pandemic, only this
time it will be worse.
The pandemic of 1918 is believed to have killed 675,000 Americans,
more than the American casualties of World War I, World War II,
the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam combined. It's estimated
that the current flu strain would kill millions of Americans. Dr.
Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota,
has called the bird flu pandemic "the single greatest risk to our
world today." Considering the potential fatalities, the $7.1 billion
that Mr. Bush has requested to combat a potential pandemic is woefully
Over $300 billion has been funded to date to fight the war in
Iraq. The Pentagon is spending more than $10 billion to research
and develop a ballistic missile defense system that many experts
have said will not even be effective. And the Pentagon spent $4.5
billion this year to study the possibility of designing a new tactical
aircraft. It's clear that the budget priorities of the Bush administration
are seriously askew.
The bird flu strain is believed to be nearly identical to the
virus that caused the influenza pandemic of 1918. Typically, a flu
virus destroys the cells lining the upper respiratory tract, resulting
in its victims succumbing to pneumonia. However, the flu in 1918,
which originated in birds on the Kansas plains, destroyed the tissue
of the lungs. This prompted an immune response reaction in which
the lungs filled up with secretions, drowning those infected. Virologists
believe the bird flu strain operates in the same manner.
Of the $7.1 billion that Mr. Bush has proposed spending on pandemic
preparedness, $1.2 billion has been slated to purchase enough vaccine
to inoculate 20 million Americans. But this would only protect 14
percent of the nation. The administration proposes spending another
$2.8 billion to develop a vaccine against the bird flu once it mutates
into a virus capable of directly infecting humans.
The goal is to produce enough vaccine for every American within
six months of a pandemic outbreak. Yet Dr. Margaret Chan, the director
of pandemic flu preparedness for the World Health Organization,
recently cautioned that there would only be at best three weeks
to contain a local outbreak before it begins to spread globally.
And Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Levitt has admitted
that it will not be feasible for the government to create a significant
number of vaccinations until 2010.
The administration proposes spending $1 billion to stockpile anti-viral
drugs. The administration believes these drugs might lessen the
length and severity of a flu infection. But the Director of the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Julie Gerberding, contradicted
this assertion, stating, "There is no evidence that it will make
a difference if we are hit with a pandemic." It make's more sense
to put this funding toward purchasing or developing vaccines.
A bird flu pandemic is a threat to the armed services and our
national security. Since soldiers are serving an average of two
tours of duty in Iraq they would almost certainly carry the bird
flu to the Middle East. In 1918 it was soldiers serving in World
War I who brought the virus to Europe. And because they lived in
close quarters, as they do today, a disproportionate number of soldiers
died in 1918 and 1919.
The influenza pandemic of 1918 first appeared at Fort Riley, Kansas
when an Army cook reported to the infirmary with head and muscle
aches, a sore throat, and fever. Later that same day over 100 soldiers
were complaining of similar symptoms. Within a week over 500 soldiers
at Fort Riley had come down with the flu.
In September 1918 Dr. Victor Vaughn, the Acting Surgeon General
of the U.S. Army, visited an Army base near Boston to access the
pandemic. He found "hundreds of young men in uniform coming into
the wards of the hospital. A cough brought up the blood-stained
sputum. In the morning, the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue
like cordwood." Today, sick and weakened soldiers in Iraq would
be much more vulnerable than they already are.
The program that President Bush put forward is inadequate at best.
The budgetary priorities of the administration should be shifted
such that significantly more funding is allocated to prepare for
the coming pandemic. Richard Falkenrath, a former advisor to the
Homeland Security Department, recently noted, "A flu pandemic is
the most dangerous threat the United States faces today. It's a
bigger threat than terrorism." The Bush administration must act
Gene C. Gerard taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years
at several colleges in the Southwest, and is a contributing author
to the forthcoming book Americans at War, by Greenwood Press. His
previous articles have appeared in Intervention Magazine, The Free
Press, Political Affairs Magazine, Alternative Press Review, Impact
Magazine, and The Palestine Chronicle.