November 17, 2004
by Dennis T. Avery
Will thousands of Americans die of a virulent new "Asian flu" this year because countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and China keep most of their chickens in little, traditional backyard flocks?
In Thailand, a baby girl and her aunt recently died of the new Asian flu strain after mingling with flu-infected chickens in their village. The baby's mother also died, probably because she nursed the little girl while she was infected. At least 30 Asians have died recently of the virulent new influenza strain, but human-to-human transmission is what scares health authorities most.
Human-to-human transmission increases the risk of the virus mutating into an easily transmitted and more deadly assault on people. That's apparently what happened in the horrifying "Spanish influenza" outbreak which killed 21 million people worldwide in 1918-19.
Remember that the major killers of humans are infectious diseases that started with our livestock. Examples: flu from poultry; smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles from cattle; yellow fever and AIDS from monkeys.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns that the new influenza pandemic could threaten the lives of thousands of Americans -- and this year we have only half the vaccine needed to protect ourselves.
Even in an average flu year more than 30,000 Americans die of the flu, mostly children, pregnant women and people over 50. America's first line of defense against the flu is that virtually all of our chickens and poultry are kept far from our population centers, in modern confinement houses. Viruses need big populations to work on, and our few, scattered poultry farmers minimize the chances of creating new influenza strains.
It's no accident that the world's recent "Asian" flu strains have come from a region with hundreds of millions of villagers and billions of free-range chickens. Americans should give thanks that we don't have very many traditional backyard chicken flocks.
Discouraging vaccine makers, on the other hand, makes us less safe. Remember when Bill and Hillary Clinton "nationalized" children's vaccines in a grandstanding political ploy? That didn't get more vaccines to children, but it did discourage vaccine makers.
The trial lawyers have further discouraged vaccine makers by threatening lawsuits for causing imaginary cases of autism in children. The autism ploy has succeeded because kids are often diagnosed with autism at about the age when they get vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella. Parents in denial about autism, a brain-development disorder, are sometimes willing to believe that the vaccinations "caused" it. Some juries are too.
America used to have dozens of vaccine makers. Now only five companies are still going through the tedious and scientifically difficult process of vaccine manufacture.
The only flu vaccine Americans can get as the flu season nears is from one French company that makes it in Pennsylvania. But the plant can make only half enough for America's flu season this year.
Britain shut down the other half of the U.S. vaccine supply, closing a U.S. maker's UK plant after the company found a batch of vaccine had failed its sterility test. The process starts with special hen's eggs, so sterility is a constant challenge.
Should we call Senator Clinton or John Edwards and the Trial Lawyers Association for this year's flu shots?
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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