The AP’s Margie Mason is a pretty good flu reporter and she has a story on the wires today whose title encapsulates the bird flu history of the last four years: Bird flu continues march 4 years later. The number of human deaths is still not large — a few hundred — just a day at the office in Iraq. But the virus just keeps extending its geographic range in poultry stocks and wherever it does it there is a risk of human infections. Fourteen countries so far have officially confirmed influenza A/H5N1 cases. The number of birds killed by infection or slaughtered to prevent the spread of infection numbers in the hundreds of millions. While there was a period when officials believed (hoped?) that vigorous control measures like those instituted in Vietnam would be effective in snuffing out the disease, events have proved this false. The virus has dug in and is enzootic in southeast asia, China, several countries in Africa and the Middle East, China and Indonesia. Many other countries have reported sporadic outbreaks and it is likely the virus exists in some of them undetected.
So while the media has (understandable) bird flu fatigue, those of us who follow events know this virus is still out there and each day we wait for the other shoe to drop. So far it hasn’t happened. We don’t know why or even whether. But it is not at all clear (and in our view not even likely) that efforts made so far to stop this virus from becoming a pandemic strain have made any difference. This is why we have advocated continued and intensified efforts to prepare to manage the consequences should a pandemic materialize.
Preparing the roof of your house for a future storm never gets the same priority as shoveling the walk from the current one and that’s the situation most health departments are in. We can deplore their lack of foresight or their lackadaisical approach to pandemic preparedness or their outright contempt for taking precious resources and time to address the pandemic that has not materialized but they are in a bind. If we want them to listen and make earnest and effective efforts we will simply have to bite the bullet and fork over the resources to do so. That means we will have to spend money — and lots of it — getting our public health infrastructure ready and sound. We say this so often here that it must surely sound like a broken record but not saying it won’t make it less necessary.
If we provide health and social service departments with the resources to do their jobs — I”m not just talking about pandemic flu, but all the jobs they have to do — keeping vital records (needed for surveillance), maternal child health, substance abuse, protective services, assistance to the elderly and all the rest — they will also do what is needed in pandemic preparedness. This might be the first priorities of the flu obsessed but it is rarely the first priorities of health and social service agencies that are limping along on one cylinder.
The literal bottom line is that if we want them to do what we need them to do, we will have to be prepared to pay for it. That means we must stop cutting their budgets and start raising revenues. Yes, raise taxes. If you think you know better what to do with a $600 tax rebate than the government, fine. Go out and buy yourself a better school, better public health protection, better child protective services. If you can’t do that, than I don’t know how you can say you have a better claim on the $600 than your community. Complaints that government agencies aren’t doing an adequate job so their budgets must be cut further are nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So if you don’t want your taxes raised, don’t complain when you don’t get the public health protection you want. And you aren’t getting it. And it’s your own damn fault.