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WHO Can Stop an Epidemic

According to the New York Times, this season's particular flu virus doesn't respond-at all-to the standard flu medicine, Tamiflu. I admit to...

According to the New York Times, this season's particular flu virus doesn't respond-at all-to the standard flu medicine, Tamiflu. I admit to shivering when I hear medical experts saying things like "It's quite shocking" and "We've never lost an antimicrobial this fast. It blew me away." Thirty six thousand Americans die every year from the flu, so it's no joke. But the last paragraph of the Times piece is particularly chilling:"And while seasonal flu is relatively mild, the Tamiflu resistance could transfer onto the H5N1 bird flu circulating in Asia and Egypt, which has killed millions of birds and about 250 people since 2003."That is disturbing because the LA Times reports last week that, after a two-year lull, avian flu is back and killing people again. In the past, pandemic health experts have warned that this "H5N1" avian flu virus could well become transmissible from human to human, and then we'd be in big trouble. The flu from the turn of the 20th century, also an avian flu, killed the percentage equivalent today of two million Americans. Its victims turned blue and coughed up blood.

Areas reporting confirmed occurrences of H5N1 avian influenza in poultry and wild birds since 2003, status as of December, 15, 2008. From the WHO See the full size version here. In response to the outbreaks of avian flu, public health agencies around the world have been stockpiling Tamiflu. So the idea of an avian flu virus that cannot be treated with Tamiflu is, well...yikes.All of this makes me wonder why the World Health Organization is virtually unheard of in the U.S (and it has only 1,203 fans on Facebook compared to, say, over 600,000 fans for Red Bull). The WHO tracks global epidemics like avian flu and another nightmare pathogen, Ebola. It also more or less eradicated polio and helps developing countries with their healthcare systems.The rules are that if there is an outbreak of contagious disease in your country, you have to share samples of the virus with the WHO That way, the WHO can get scientists to track and analyze the bug (and ideally develop a vaccine), and it can help coordinate a response among public health officials to prevent the spread. No other group can do this-if Washington asked for those samples, many countries would refuse.The WHO is an encouraging, and too rare, example of countries getting over their differences to solve a common problem. The WHO is underfunded and needs reform, but it stands between us and some lethal future pandemic. President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and Obama's pick for healthcare czar-Senator Tom Daschle-should be sure to support it, talk it up and push to make it as effective an organization as it can be.Guest blogger Nina L. Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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