[Viewpoint]Prepare now for a pandemicOutbreaks of the strain of bird flu that has the potential to infect humans were reported recently at poultry farms in Gimje and Jeongeup in North Jeolla recently.
It is the third time the deadly avian influenza has attacked the region since 2003.
We need to come up with urgent measures to save the poultry farms and the food industry, which have been pounded by the outbreaks. The next task for the government is to check its national manual as to how to counter a pandemic of influenza.
Such a pandemic can be triggered by a mutation of the bird flu strain H5N1 that can infect humans. If such a thing were to happen, it would become a serious disaster to mankind.
The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed 50 million around the world.
According to records, Korea had 7.6 million cases, killing 140,000. This is how serious an influenza pandemic can be.
According to the World Health Organization, the H5N1 virus has already killed some humans, who got it from birds.
As of now, 67 countries have reported bird flu outbreaks in poultry. Out of those, 14 countries have reported 379 human infections, with 239 deaths.
The deadly avian influenza has a mortality rate of 63 percent and is about to spread from Asia to Europe and Africa.
Avian influenza outbreaks have been localized in Southeast Asia. Infections among family members, considered a step toward pandemic influenza, have been reported in Indonesia and Pakistan.
The damage from a pandemic influenza can be extremely serious.
A quarter — or even half — of the world’s population may be infected and tens of millions would die from a global outbreak.
Governments are busy coming up with countermeasures.
To reduce the damage from pandemic influenza, traditional public health caution measures, such as washing hands, wearing masks and isolating patients, can be taken in addition to provide effective anti-viruses and vaccines.
Public health measures can slow down the speed of the spread of pandemic influenza, which alone would have limited effect in reducing the damage.
Providing an anti-virus — Tamiflu — and vaccine simultaneously can be effective, along with health caution measures.
Advanced nations are taking efforts to stockpile Tamiflu and vaccine.
A vaccine is the most effective, and active, way to fight against pandemic influenza.
Many advanced countries are working hard to develop effective vaccines and stockpile them to vaccinate their entire nation, if needed.
For example, the United States has accumulated enough Tamiflu to treat 50 million people and enough vaccine enough to cover 1.3 million people.
The U.S. goal is to produce enough vaccine to treat the entire nation by 2011.
Switzerland already has enough to vaccinate the whole country.
Korea’s neighbor, Japan, has enough vaccine to cover 10 million people.
China has completed development of its vaccine and is on its way to producing it in mass quantities.
Korea, on the other hand, has enough anti-virus to treat 1.24 million people, but it has no vaccine to prepare for a massive outbreak of human infections.
Developing the vaccine for a pandemic requires a long period of time and a large amount of money, so Korea must hurry to begin its work.
The development of a pandemic vaccine in Korea is at the stage of animal experiments, so Koreans would have to fight against the disease without help if an influenza pandemic were to occur in Korea right now.
Some may say we can just buy the vaccine, but once an outbreak of pandemic influenza takes place, it will become impossible to purchase the vaccine, even at an extremely high price.
The world’s ability to produce vaccine is far lower than the demand, and most of the advanced nations have a policy that their citizens will have the top priority to be vaccinated if a pandemic actually takes place.
No matter how much money you have, it will be impossible to buy vaccine.
Korea has the world’s 12th-largest economy and is known as a superpower in information technology and biotechnology.
To live up to its reputation, the government must use all of its capabilities to come up with a thorough countermeasure to fight an influenza pandemic, including the development of a vaccine.
*The writer is a professor of medicine at Korea University.
by Kim Woo-joo