Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Simply Irresponsible


It’s been more than a year now, since the President of the United States made his strong recommendation that we prepare as a nation for the inevitable arrival of a pandemic. Of the 7 Billion dollars he asked for funding, Congress grudgingly allotted 50 cents on the dollar last December, and then coughed up another 2.3 billion last June.

The 6.1 Billion dollars now appropriated works out to be about $20 for each man, woman, and child in the country. While hardly chump change, this is a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.5 trillion dollar national budget, and little more than the cost of a single Nimitz class aircraft carrier (est. 4.5 Billion).

I understand that budgets are tight, and the need to prioritize. After all, Congress was barely able to squeeze in an extra 24 billion dollars in congressional earmarks, often labeled `pork’, to last year’s transportation bill. Those 6,000 add-on projects, primarily designed to bring jobs to their home districts, can mean the difference between re-election and returning to the private sector for an elected official; and that obviously takes precedence over the lives and safety of a nation.

Last month, the federal government decided to purchase another 2.9 million doses of an experimental vaccine, one that admittedly may be ineffective against the H5N1 virus, for a cost of $200 million dollars. That’s roughly $75 a shot. While we can hope for a volume discount in the future, at that rate, it would take $22 billion dollars to buy enough vaccine for the rest of us.

The good news is, no manufacturer is likely to have 300 million doses to sell to us anytime soon, so we won’t be faced with the dilemma of figuring out how to pay for them.

The truth is, we’ve known all along that another pandemic would arrive someday. This isn’t some last minute surprise thrust upon us in the past 12 months. We had a scare in 1976, and when that passed, quickly forgot about the threat. Now we are suddenly playing catch up, and are years behind in our preparations.

Fiscal irresponsibility aside, I have to ask, where are the congressional voices on the threat of a pandemic?

The worlds’ scientists have spoken, in alarming terms, about the threat of a pandemic. Dr. Michael Osterholm, Dr. Robert Webster, Dr. Dmitri Lvov, and Dr. David Nabarro among others. They tell us another pandemic is not a matter of `if, but when’. Most scientists regard the Bird Flu now circulating in 55 countries as being a likely source of the next pandemic. And yet, our leaders rarely if ever speak publicly of the threat.

We hear about terrorists who’d like to take out an American city nearly every day, and we spend copious amounts of money to avoid that fate. Why then, do elected officials say almost nothing about the pandemic threat?

Is there some congressional lobby out there threatening to withhold campaign contributions if a candidate maligns the H5N1 virus?

Or are our leaders simply unsure as to whether they are pro-pandemic, or against one?

I’d really like to know.

Our military certainly takes the threat seriously, and Secretary Michael Leavitt has led the HHS (Health and Human Services) to the fore in the battle against this threat. President George W. Bush has indicated he considers it a very serious matter, and the UN is spending billions of dollars to try to mitigate and control the problem. For the past year, our federal government has maintained a website, http://www.pandemicflu.gov/ , where they urge all Americans to prepare for a pandemic.

So I have to assume the threat is credible. Not a slam-dunk, but certainly as real as the threat of losing an American city to a suitcase nuke.

So I’m waiting for impassioned speeches on the floor of the House and Senate, and so far, all I hear are faint whispers.

Why was the potential of a pandemic not a campaign issue during the mid-term elections? A pandemic surely threatens our nation as much, or more, than illegal immigration, flag burning, and the removal of the words `under god’ from the Pledge of Allegiance. Those issues were discussed non-stop.

When I speak to people about the threat of a pandemic, I get blank stares. I’m often told that if it were a real threat, our leaders would be talking about it. Obviously they aren’t, and so the threat is discounted in the minds of the public.

I know there have been congressional hearings on avian influenza. And I’ve no doubt; if one digs deep enough, most politicians have at least mentioned the threat at least once. After all, it would be foolish not to be on the record somewhere on the subject. But if they have, they’ve managed for the most part to keep it out of the newspapers.

Apparently, the only thing that all 535 member of congress can agree on is a code of silence on avian influenza.

Either the pandemic threat is worthy of mention, or it is not. If it is not, then we shouldn’t be spending 6.1 billion dollars against a non-threat. If it is a genuine threat, as I believe it is, then our leaders should be talking openly about it to the American people.

Somewhere, I suspect, there is a cabal of political consultants who have decided for our elected officials that there is no upside to talking about a pandemic. It is too politically `risky’. That it would alarm the public, threaten their credibility if a pandemic doesn’t happen in the next 12 months, and possibly cost them the next election. Their best advice, should a pandemic erupt, will be to feign surprise, hold hearings, and blame someone else for their lapse.

While I highly doubt any congressional staffers read this blog, I’m going to offer them some free advice anyway. If you believe the threat is real, make this an issue. Take a chance, and level with your constituents.

It can be done in such a way as to not overly alarm the public, and will hopefully spur them to prepare as advised by the HHS. It will provide your candidate with an issue that will set them apart from the herd, and most of all, it’s the right thing to do.

If a pandemic comes, your boss will be viewed as having had the foresight to deal with the problem early on. If a pandemic doesn’t happen, then you get credit for being prudent and concerned about public safety.

It’s a win-win proposition.

The time has long passed for neutrality on pandemic influenza. While it may not happen this year, or even next, another pandemic will happen. Hoping it doesn’t happen on your watch is a terrible gamble.

We need years, and adequate funding, to prepare effectively for the next pandemic. The clock is running. Most of all, we need honesty, transparency, and accountability from our elected leaders.

For them to do anything less is simply irresponsible.

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