Recently, I met a Christian executive whose grandfather lost his twin brother to the flu pandemic of 1918 that took 50 million lives globally. I myself was quarantined for two weeks in the college chapel at Cascade College in Portland during the 1957 flu pandemic. That strain only cost 2 million lives around the world.
Are we ready for the “next big one”—the potential pandemic of H5N1 or “avian flu”? Undoubtedly, you’ve read about the epidemic among poultry in Asia that has resulted in the wholesale slaughter of infected fowl in Vietnam, Thailand, and China. Nearly 200 people have contracted the infection and 90 have died. In the last few months, the flu has spread to countries in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. It is only a question of time before it reaches North America.
When Katrina hit last year, churches were among the first responders. One of the under-reported outcomes of Hurricane Katrina is that churches around the United States are training disaster preparedness teams—and many are currently tooling themselves to respond to the avian flu.
Public health experts are deeply concerned at how easily the avian flu could morph into a human-to-human flu virus. We have nothing in our immune system that will recognize this new strain. As a consequence we could see a new human flu pandemic that could become global in a matter of weeks—and continue in waves around the world for 12 to 18 months.
Industry is leading the way in preparedness and taking counter-measures against this particular flu strain by developing effective virucidal agents. A number of local governments, such as King County, Washington, have developed comprehensive plans that could involve shutting down the entire region as long as three months at a time.