The recent hurricanes Katrina and Rita have been powerful reminders of how destructive the forces of nature can be, and how preparation for them can mitigate their effects. Avian influenza, commonly referred to as “bird flu,” is a powerful force of nature that we must prepare for–or suffer the potentially devastating health and financial consequences. Bird flu is a viral contagious disease, just like the regular seasonal flu, but it might turn out to be 70 times more deadly. And, because of the nature of the virus, it might be most deadly for healthy children and adults, and pregnant women–just like the so-called Spanish flu of 1918-19 was.

The report of the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project, Mapping the Global Future, identified a global pandemic (an epidemic that is worldwide) as the single most important threat to the global economy. According to Shigeru Omi, regional director of the World Health Organization, “The world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic.” And according to Dr. Robert Webster, a world-renowned influenza researcher at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, “We could be heading for a global catastrophe.” Infectious-disease experts have repeatedly warned that it’s not a question of whether a bird-flu pandemic is coming; it’s only a question of when.

Judging from the federal government’s incredibly inadequate response at all levels to hurricane Katrina–which is emblematic of its ineptness in dealing with large national emergencies, its slow and superficial response to bird flu to date, and its lack of leadership on this issue–it is clear that you cannot count on the government to protect you. You must take the initiative to prepare yourself and your family for the coming bird-flu pandemic.

There are four essential areas that you must address to prepare for the bird-flu pandemic: 1) “social distancing”; 2) commodities–including food, 3) personal protective equipment (PPE), and 4) financial preparation. Social distancing refers to your living and work situations when the pandemic strikes. Without going to extremes, you want you and your family to be as far away from other people as possible. Bird flu is just like the regular seasonal flu in that you become infected from other people, not birds. (Although it might be possible to acquire the viral infection from birds, it is much more likely that, if you do become infected, you will have acquired the virus from another person, not a bird.)

The bird-flu virus is extremely contagious; it is transmitted though casual contact with a contagious person (who might not have any symptoms during the first 24 hours of infection), through touching contaminated objects, and through the air. Because of this, you want to stay away from people as much as possible, and that means spending more time at home. Your children will not be at school, they will be home. If your home is on the 73rd floor in an apartment building in New York City, how are you going to avoid other people? You might want to think of an alternative living situation for a few months.

The same principle applies to your work setting. If you can telecommute, that is the best scenario. If you don’t telecommute now, but because of the type of work you do it might be a possibility, discuss it with your employer. If you will have to continue to work closely with others at your job site, what can be done there to help protect you and others from infection? How can policies and procedures be amended to minimize contact with coworkers or customers? Are there hand-washing stations available? What are your employer’s plans for dealing with the coming pandemic? Discuss these and related issues with your employer and coworkers.

The second area that must be addressed is “commodities–including food.” There will be sporadic difficulties manufacturing or producing goods–because workers around the globe will be sick or otherwise absent from work. There also will be supply chain disruptions–both because workers will be sick or otherwise absent from work, and because of regional, national and/or international restrictions on travel. These problems will cause a decrease or the unavailability of most or all of the products we easily have access to now.

Commodities such as soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, and virtually everything you can buy at stores such as Wal-Mart will be difficult or impossible to obtain–for periods of weeks or months at a time. This includes the most important commodity–food. The federal government is always telling us to stock up on emergency supplies for three days. This will not be sufficient preparation for the coming deadly bird-flu pandemic. There will likely be limited food available in stores. In addition, stores are places you want to avoid anyway, because potentially contagious people might be there. Stock up now so that you have sufficient commodities, including food, for a period of months.

The third area to address is so-called personal protective equipment (PPE), which you will have to use, depending upon circumstances. PPE includes special face masks, called N95 respirators, which help prevent infection through inhalation of the virus. Remember that avian influenza (“bird flu”) is a very contagious disease that can be transmitted through the air. The only way to counter this source of infection is through the use of special N95 respirators. These are disposable face masks that can be worn for up to eight hours.

N95 masks were the type of masks worn by hospital workers during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic that struck a number of cities around the world, including Toronto, Canada. Surgical masks or other common face masks, sometimes used when sanding or painting and so forth, are not effective.
Other elements of PPE include disposable latex or vinyl gloves, eye goggles or face shields, gowns impervious to liquids, and sometimes disposable booties or disposable head caps. Keep in mind that during the pandemic, most people who become infected will have to be cared for at home, not in crowded and overwhelmed hospitals. This means that caregivers taking care of loved ones at home need to be protected from the virus, just like hospital workers working in hospitals. The only way to be protected is to wear PPE. (Just washing your hands–the federal government’s primary recommendation for caregivers at home–will not be enough.) Once the pandemic starts, demand for PPE will be huge and supplies will be in very short supply–or nonexistent. Buy now or suffer the consequences later.

The last area that must be addressed before the bird-flu pandemic strikes is personal finances. This is an area that governments at all levels have been mute on. However, preparing your finances to sustain yourself and your family during (and after) the pandemic could prove to be the most important area of preparation. Although the bird-flu virus is deadly and many of us will fall ill, most of us will not die from it–only one to two percent of the population will likely die. The vast majority will live–but under what circumstances?

Think of hurricane Katrina–where most people survived–but where hundreds of thousands are now homeless and underemployed or unemployed. Because of the potentially severe local, national, and international economic consequences of the bird-flu pandemic, many of us will suffer financially. Businesses around the world will not be able to make or distribute products or provide services. There will be layoffs and some companies will go out of business altogether. At a minimum, people will be out of work for periods of weeks or months. Your child or children, if you have any, will be at home–not in school or day care. Will that force one parent to stay home from work to care for them? How will you pay your rent or mortgage and your bills under these circumstances?

At Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” When it comes to bird-flu preparation could make the difference between life and death, how much you and your family eat, and whether or not you can pay your bills, including your rent or mortgage. The government will not resolve these issues for you. Just like Smoky the Bear’s admonition, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Only you can take stock of this situation and do something about it. Think about it–and then do something about it.