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March 15: Be frightened and reassured by Sarah Archer's discussion of pandemics and global security

Local+global public health expert Sarah Archer speaks to the Church of the Saviour Great Decisions series

When: Wednesday March 15, 7:00 PM

Where: Church of the Saviour, 6205 Rucker Road Indianapolis

Post 9/11, security and public health authorities are planning for epidemiological disasters as never before. What does that planning encompass, and how effective is it likely to be? What lessons can be learned from reactions to the global AIDS pandemic and its growing impact on the developing world?

As many people around Indy know, a Sarah Archer talk is not to be missed. Forty years of work in international and local public health, training US peacekeepers, flighting plagues in Africa and South Asia ... Sarah brings more authority and experienced than just about anyone else. Sarah doesn't get much time to write -- she is too busy saving lives, advising policy shapers, and educating the public. Alad Dowd reports on a talk about avian flu Sarah gave last fall:

The American Enterprise Online, November 29, 2005
A Nasty Little Beast
By Alan W. Dowd

If the experts are right, it’s only a matter of time until a new strain of avian flu known as H5N1 mutates into a virus that is easily transferable to humans and spreads like a wildfire across the planet. Because it is a new flu strain, humans have little or no immunity built up against it. And because we live in an increasingly borderless world, it has the capacity to make its way around the globe rapidly, far more rapidly than any flu strain we have known. Together, these factors serve as the key ingredients for a pandemic that could claim 2 to 7 million people, according to the World Health Organization.

“This is a nasty little beast,” as Dr. Sarah Archer explained during a recent roundtable at Sagamore Institute for Policy Research (SIPR). Archer, who is a public health expert and an associate fellow at SIPR, notes that previous influenza pandemics have claimed millions, including hundreds of thousands of Americans. A 1968 outbreak killed 34,000 Americans and 700,000 worldwide; a 1957 flu claimed 70,000 Americans and some 2 million worldwide; and of course, the worst of them all, the 1918 pandemic, killed 40 million people, including half-a-million Americans. President Bush has noted that even typical flu strains annually kill up to 36,000 people, hospitalize another 200,000 and cost $10 billion—in the United States alone. This new strain, first discovered in 1997, has infected just over 130 people; but it has killed about half of those infected. Moreover, it has decimated bird populations, causing “the largest and most severe outbreaks in poultry on record” according to the World Health Organization. In other words, this is no typical 24-hour bug. The good news is that public health experts around the world are more prepared than ever before—and have been far more effective at convincing policymakers of the
seriousness of H5N1. The twin facts that cases are being reported quickly and that governments are seeking ways to collaborate to head off a super-flu are evidence of global readiness. Indeed, for all its gaps, the global early warning system for diseases is acting in ways unimagined prior to previous pandemics.

Even so, there is a fine line between pandemic preparedness and pandemic panic. As BusinessWeek reported this month, avian-flu panic is spreading across Europe. One British newspaper headline promised that “Bird flu will hit Britain and kill 50,000.” France has ordered 200 million medical facemasks. Poultry sales have dropped off by as much as 40 percent in Europe. Italy has blocked poultry imports from the Balkan region; other countries could follow suit. Britain is weighing a permanent ban on all bird imports other than poultry. The EU is banning birds and poultry from any country where bird flu has appeared. (That includes, by my unscientific count, China, Kuwait, Vietnam, Indonesia, Russia, Mongolia, Thailand and Cambodia, plus an avian-flu variant recently found in Canada.)

“The answer is not panic,” according to Archer, “but preparedness.” In other words, this is no time to cocoon ourselves at home. Yet Archer and other public health experts concede there is not much a typical American can do to prevent or prepare for this looming pandemic. The best we can do, it seems, is what our parents taught us: wash our hands, get plenty of rest, take our vitamins and eat right. But even though the experts say H5N1 can’t be spread via cooked poultry, I suspect my doctor will understand if I pass on the chicken-noodle soup this winter.

Want to learn more? On May 10: Discuss pandemics and global security with Eric Meslin of the Center for Bioethics. And on May 15: Celebrate USAID director Randall Tobias, Indianapolis International Citizen of the Year
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