Wednesday, May 06, 2009

This Little Piggy Pundit Went A-Wanking…

(I also posted here.)

Leave it to Bret Stephens of the Murdoch Street Journal here to poke fun over the fact that some public figures, as well as entire countries, went more than a little bonkers over the recent swine flu outbreak…

In the matter of swine flu -- and the single dumbest response to it yet -- first prize was about to go to the government of Egypt, which last week ordered a cull of the country's estimated 400,000 pigs, never mind that the disease, name notwithstanding, is mainly transmitted human-to-human.

So that leaves the runners-up: protectionist Russia, which used the flu panic to ban pork imports from Spain and Canada; U.S. immigration restrictionists, who see in the "Mexican flu" a fresh reason to argue for a wall along the border; and panicky Joe Biden, who unwittingly made the case against Amtrak ("I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now") until his handlers interceded. Who knew Mr. Biden was talking about himself when he warned last year that Barack Obama would be tested by crisis early in his presidency?
Just for that, I hope someone feeling poorly coughs his or her germs all over Stephens, just enough to make him violently ill for a day or so, and then maybe it will occur to him not to be such a smartass next time when it comes to trying to avoid one of the easiest ways to get sick.

And I’m a little surprised that Stephens forgot to note in his screed yesterday that China showed its typical hysteria in the face of near-calamity by detaining 70 Mexicans who showed no sign of the virus, and were only “guilty” of being nationals from the country where the outbreak originated. That information is captured in this CBS News story, which also tells us…

It's certainly safe to say that the media have not shown much restraint in covering a flu that reporters have been all-too-happy to characterize as "deadly." Yet the press did not create the story out of thin air: The World Health Organization and Centers For Disease Control have been offering stark warnings about the disease from the outset. When the WHO suggests that a "pandemic is imminent," as it did last week, headlines are going to follow.

And despite the fact that the story has gotten less play this week, the world is not exactly in the clear. The biggest problem with media coverage of the flu, in fact, may be that reporters haven't always informed news consumers that the danger isn't necessarily only in the short term. The 1918 Spanish flu outbreak killed millions around the globe, but it didn't look so bad when it first emerged in the spring. By August, however, it had mutated to a far deadlier form.
(And by the way, the CBS story had the number of destroyed Egyptian pigs at 300,000, for what it’s worth.)

I believe this is just another case where we must remain vigilant and use common sense in the event that the flu does mutate; there’s really not much else we can do at this point (and this extract of a Journal story tells us that “testing for flu in pigs less stringent than for mad cow or bird flu”).

And speaking of mad cow, I just want to return to Stephens’ column for a minute and highlight the following…

You might also have a vague memory of the "mad cow" panic that gripped the world in the 1990s. In his 1997 book "Deadly Feasts," Richard Rhodes warned that the human variant of mad cow, known as vCJD, might kill as many as 500,000 people a year in Britain alone. So far, total confirmed cases world-wide run to around 150.
I don’t know where on earth Stephens obtained that 150 number, but this January 2008 article tells us, among other things, that 160 people have died from “mad cow” in the U.K. alone.

To be more precise, the danger from “mad cow” is that it will mutate into Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which, as Wikipedia tells us here, is marked by a buildup of abnormal prion proteins in the brain that kill the nerve cells (truly hideous stuff, people), and it is always fatal. It currently afflicts one in a million people worldwide.

And as we contemplate this, let us also applaud the call from President Obama for noting the following from here, in which he speaks about the appointment of Dr. Margaret Hamburg as Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration…

…in recent years, we've seen a number of problems with the food making its way to our kitchen tables. In 2006, it was contaminated spinach. In 2008, it was salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes. And just this year, bad peanut products led to hundreds of illnesses and cost nine people their lives - a painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job. Worse, these incidents reflect a troubling trend that's seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year - up from 100 a year in the early 1990s.

Part of the reason is that many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt. It's also because our system of inspection and enforcement is spread out so widely among so many people that it's difficult for different parts of our government to share information, work together, and solve problems. And it's also because the FDA has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses each year. That means roughly 95% of them go uninspected.
And as we ponder how we got this sorry state (wow, glad to hear that everything is going swimmingly at 5 PERCENT of these operations!!!), here is some reading material from Greg Anrig at The American Prospect who lays the blame at the feet of the usual right-wing suspects for the FDA's decline (think of The Sainted Ronnie R and his “son,” as Will Bunch calls him)…

Charting the phases of the FDA's decline lays bare the responsibility borne by movement conservatism. The first phase was the two terms of the Reagan presidency, when the FDA's staff declined by 30 percent. After a reprieve from 1988 to 1994, when more moderate presidents and a Democratic Congress provided ample boosts in the agency's budget and staffing, the FDA's garroting resumed with a vengeance in the wake of the 1994 Republican landslide that catapulted Gingrich to the House Speaker's chair. He led a highly effective jihad against the agency, pushing to privatize many of its activities. The onslaught continued under George W. Bush and the Republican Congress. From 1994 to 2007, according to former FDA chief counsel (Peter Barton) Hutt, the agency's appropriated personnel declined from 9,167 to 7,856, while its funding increased by only two-thirds of the amount that would have been needed to keep up with inflation.

As with virtually every other regulatory agency under Bush, the FDA henhouse has been guarded by foxes. That is, for top leadership positions the administration chose political appointees with close ties to the industries they regulate. That strategy of stifling nonpolitical career civil servants, not incidentally, conforms with recommendations the Heritage Foundation made to Bush at the outset of his term. One example at the FDA was chief counsel Dan Troy, a longtime opponent of FDA regulation who had previously represented Pfizer.
So let us now applaud and support the Obama Administration as it does all it can to enable the FDA to work proactively once more for the sake of not just human health in this country, but worldwide by ensuring the safety of our drugs and our food products.

And I’ll make sure I check back with Bret Stephens in August to make sure he’s still feeling OK enough to throw stones at people who are actually trying to do good work.

Update 5/11/09: By the way, I didn't mean to imply that the "swine flu" is spread through food - it isn't (sorry about that).

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