Avian Flu, Etc.

I forgot to mention that last Thursday I attended the official diwali celebrations on Parliament Hill. In attendance were the Prime Minister, opposition leader Stephen Harper, celebrity minister Belinda Stronach, the omnipresent Indian High Commissioner and a host of lesser known political types. Strangely, the best speech by a Canadian politician was given by Stephen Harper, who showed a thorough knowledge of the history and tenets of diwali. The Prime Minister was not to be outdone, even sitting for puja and seemingly speaking off the cuff. Belinda rushed off before I could say hello. I doubt if she’d remember me anyway. I was looking for some visible signs of animosity between Belinda and Harper; can’t say I saw any.

So much for political gossip. On to today’s topic….

In March of this year, the Toronto Star commissioned me to write an article on the possibility of an avian flu pandemic, which I completed on my PDA in the back seat of a car bound for New York. To my chagrin, the article landed me invitations to appear on CBC Newsworld, the Discovery Channel and CanWest Global. Due to scheduling constraints, I was only able to do the latter, and was shocked to find myself in the midst of a UN-bashing session worthy of the most low-brow of the US neo-con set. (It was the UN, through the WHO, which had shut down Toronto in the wake of SARS, after all.) While I was arguing that the threat of pandemic was real, given humanity’s growing familiarity with farm animals, isolated animal communities and our new ability to zip about the globe in mere hours, my position was dismissed rather offhandedly as fear-mongering by the likes of Donald Low and some other dude whose name I forget. Then my audio was cut off, so I don’t know what else was being said.

Fast forward 7 months and we see the world bracing for this pandemic. People are hoarding tamiflu, one of the more potent flu remedies; PM Paul Martin is organizing an international response; and even George W. Bush seems to be taking the threat seriously. That’s because the threat is real. If the avian flu virus manages to mutate into a human variety, which seems inevitable, all kinds of faeces will hit all kinds of fans.

So what should be done? At this point, in Canada, all responses are thus far appropriate, given the scale of the threat and the magnitude of risk. I would suggest one more thing: at the first confirmed case of human-to-human transmission anywhere in the world, Canada should institude airport screening. China has already promised to close its borders should a human transmission case be found. And at the first confirmed case anywhere in Canada, the entire country should go into epidemic alert, meaning hospitals retreat to their quarantine protocols.

A little extreme? Maybe. But such precautions are ultimately cheaper and less invasive than inaction.

Meanwhile, the earthquake in Kashmir may have slipped from the front pages, but it is still taking lives. By some reports, the Pakistani government has been inept in granting aid, and affected peoples are still stranded without shelter in the remote and freezing parts of the Himalayan foothills. Traditional tensions between Pakistan and India likely are not helping, either. I’m off to India (I hope) in January. Maybe I’ll get a chance to tour the damaged areas. If anyone has any contacts with disaster response teams in the area, feel free to share them with me!