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The Ultimate Chicken Joke

By Lucinda Marshall

11 February, 2006

Late last year, Senator Bill Frist told the National Press Club that, according to a study by the Congressional Budget Office, bird flu could cost the United States $675 billion in economic damage. This count and amount assumes that 30% of the nation will be stricken by a disease that has thus far proved lethal to less than 100 people worldwide. In such a scenario, 90 million Americans could be sickened and two million would die. The report states however that the chances of a flu pandemic occurring are less than one third of one percent.

Armed with this alarming scenario, President Bush recently signed a bill allocating $3.8 billion in funds to prepare for bird flu while also giving pharmaceutical companies broad liability protection for drugs produced to combat a pandemic. While a compensation plan for patients injured by pandemic vaccines was created, no money allotted for the program.

A significant portion of the preparation funds will be spent stockpiling Tamiflu, a drug developed by Gilead Sciences, a company in which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has a significant financial stake. Curiously, the World Health Organization has stated that Tamiflu has not been particularly successful in treating humans who have contracted bird flu but nonetheless continues to recommend its use despite the drug's unproven efficacy. The value of Tamiflu in treating bird flu is indeed dubious, except of course to its investors. The British medical journal Lancet recently published a report of a study that found no "credible evidence" that the drug is effective against the virus.

And in Vietnam, a country hard hit by bird flu, a doctor treating patients with bird flu has also reported that Tamiflu had no effect on patients she was treating. The doctor, Dr. Nguyen Tuong Van of the Centre for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, does not see Tamiflu (which was developed to fight Type A flu, not the H5N1 virus) as a useful tool for fighting avian flu.

Even though Tamiflu may not be useful in treating bird flu, both the World Health Organization and the drug's primary manufacturer, Roche Holding AG, continue to advise stockpiling the drug, which only has a shelf life of only 5 years. As of last October, there were enough doses of Tamiflu (which retails for $91.99 for ten pills at my local pharmacy) available in the treat 4.3 million people.

A draft of a plan by the Bush administration notes that tens of millions of doses would be needed, far more than can be currently manufactured. More disturbingly, many private corporations, particularly those who do business in Southeast Asia are considering stockpiling the drug for use by employees, leading to serious questions regarding the vested interests of these companies versus the public good should a pandemic actually occur.

The United States has also asked two pharmaceutical companies to start producing and stockpiling bird flu vaccines. The vaccine is now being tested on humans to find out at what dosage if any it is actually effective; the expectation is that it will require six times the dosage of normal flu shots.

The vaccine is based on a virus sample from one of the few people to have died from the bird flu in its present form. Unfortunately, there is no way to know whether a vaccine based on the current makeup of the virus will be effective against other permutations of bird flu.

Even if the vaccine does turn out to be effective, it would take years for to manufacture adequate amounts of the vaccine, given the current manufacturing capacities. And no one knows for just how long such a vaccine would remain potent, so there is the very real possibility that the stockpiled vaccine would have to be discarded before an actual pandemic occurred.

Despite all of the media attention and money being spent, there is significant disagreement within the scientific and medical community as to the likelihood of a bird flu pandemic. According to Ian Lipkin of Columbia University's School of Public Health, it would take numerous mutations for the genome of this virus to become likely to transmit from human to human. And as one public health doctor pointed out, many common flu precautions such as washing hands and not going to work when you are sick could blunt the impact of any kind of flu epidemic.

It is truly disturbing that there is so much hype over an uncertain pandemic versus our systemic ignoring of existing pandemics that we actually have the ways and means to treat and in many cases, eradicate. According to The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, approximately half of all deaths caused by infectious diseases each year can be attributed to AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis which together cause 300 million illnesses and more than five million deaths. Significantly, the comprehensive list of such diseases does not include West Nile Virus or Ebola, both of which have gotten much press coverage, but which, like avian flu, have actually killed a very small number of people.

It is of course possible for there to be a bird flu pandemic with very serious consequences. But spending billions of dollars on unproven vaccines and treatments seems of little value, particularly when many more lives would be saved by spending the same money on available, effective treatments for the ongoing existing pandemics that already plague our planet. But in the spirit of SARS and Anthrax, a little panic goes a long way in instilling fear and feeding the corporate coffers.

Feeling sick yet?


This article was originally publishe in Zmag

Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, Her work has been published in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, The Progressive, Rain and Thunder, Z , Common Dreams and Information Clearinghouse.









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