Monday, April 17, 2006

Wherein I don a tinfoil hat

I was unfair to Dr. Julie Gerberding, the CDC Director when I said some almost-nice things about her the other day. So let me correct it by taking it back.

I said then I at least gave her high marks for being a good, relatively spin-free communicator, even if she is a Katrina-sized management disaster at CDC. But then she went ahead and made a lier out of me in an appearance last week in Tacoma, Washington:
Federal health officials at a meeting Friday in Tacoma downplayed the risk bird flu poses to humans, contrasting earlier warnings from the federal government. “There is no evidence it will be the next pandemic,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said of avian flu. There is “no evidence it is evolving in a direction that is becoming more transmissible to people.”

Gerberding spoke at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center at a pandemic flu conference that drew 1,200 people from across the state, mostly health department officials and others involved in emergency planning.


Audience questions Friday about buying surgical masks and stockpiling food showed the concern Bush’s comments and others have raised.

But Gerberding noted that, though the disease has killed “gazillions of birds,” it has killed about 100 people out of about 200 sickened worldwide. The victims were in intense, daily contact with sick flocks, often sharing the same living space. Two people have become infected from person-to-person contact.

She did not say what had changed the thinking of health care officials about bird flu, but said that, at this point, there is “no reason to think it ever will” pass easily between people.

Given those facts, bird flu, like SARS, swine flu and other once widely publicized health threats, might never become a significant human illness.


She and other federal officials said H5N1 bird flu likely will reach the United States, because bird flu and its many strains occur naturally in migratory birds.

When that happens, “it does not signal the start of a pandemic” or a threat to the food supply, said Richard Raymond, an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cooking meat to 160 degrees will destroy the virus, he said – in addition to destroying salmonella, “which sickens more people than H5N1 ever will even if there is a pandemic.”

Gerberding cautioned that when H5N1 is detected in the United States, “there will be temptation for the press to make this into something it is not. We will need responsible journalism” to prevent irrational panic. (Tacoma News Tribune)
There's no reason to think it ever will become easily transmissible? On the contrary, there are many reasons. Good, sound, plausible, scientific reasons. No conclusive reasons, perhaps. But comparing "gazillions of birds" to 100 human deaths has only one function here, to trivialize the issue. Responsible journalism? Irrational panic?

This is now the second Administration spokesperson to start to ratchet back on bird flu. I reported the other day that Tony Fauci had granted an interview to AP in which he did the same thing, although not so flagrantly and irresponsibly as Gerberding. One reader pointed out to me there was no news hook in the Fauci interview. It seemed to come out of the blue. Meanwhile rumors are circulating that Gerberding is reorganizing again at CDC and the Flu Branch is going to be shifted around. It is now part of the National Center for Infectious Disease (NCID) but may move to the National Immunization Program. Last year the Flu branch lost some of its key personnel. Look for more with this reorganization. No one knows from day to day what their new job is going to be in the Alice in Wonderland of the New CDC. As one state epidemiologist said to me recently, "It's like a Repertory Company. Everybody you deal with now at CDC is Acting Something or Other."

This is a ridiculous time to be screwing around with CDC organization, especially considering the enormous upset and morale plunge Gerberding's previous management mishaps caused. By every account she doesn't listen, is arrogant toward the professional scientists, and is an Administration toady. Heck of a job, Julie.

Carrying water for the Bushies also made her extremely tardy in alerting the states to the bird flu problem, preferring instead to parrot Administration messages about bioterrorism (talk about unreal threats!). She never strayed from the "message," which was terrorism and the Iraq debacle. Given the new vibes coming out of Washington about plans to bomb Iran, it makes me wonder whether there is no room in that message for bird flu, once again . . .

Oh, oh. Please hand me my tinfoil hat.