In blatant defiance of the White House Press Corps tradition of asking nothing but questions which they ought to already know the answer to over and over again, one reporter at yesterday's press conference actually brought up a timely and important topic, the threat of Avian Flu.
President Bush was ready with an exhaustive answer - he's just finished meetings with the United Nations and World Health Organizations on this issue, and has been extensively briefed on the subject. He's also preparing to host an international conference on the Avian Flu crisis later this year, so the subject is very much on his mind.
The specifics of the president's response to the question have led to some negative reaction because he suggested the use of the US Military to impose a quarantine within our borders in violation of Posse Comitatus. This has raised concerns for some, but it does seem to be a logical outgrowth of the inability of local authorities to respond to recent major crises like hurricane Katrina, a situation which would be accentuated by the interstate character of the outbreak of a major flu epidemic.
For years concerned commentators like Ralph Nader have been complaining that the administration was not taking the threat of Avian Flu seriously enough. Now that they are apparently taking it seriously, the proposed solutions are stirring up accusations of fearmongering.
Yet the more we learn about the threat of Avian Flu the more alarming it seems. The context in which all epidemics are assessed is the Spanish Flu of 1918, which is now believed to have originated as a bird flu. That virus infected about 25% of the population of the world and had a fatality rate of about 20%, ultimately killing millions of people world wide - about 3% of the total world population or 50 million people. In comparison the Avian Flu has yet to spread far, but it has a fatality rate of as high as 70%. All it would require would be for the virus to break out of the areas in Asia where it is currently contained and begin to pass from one human host to another and it would become an epidemic of unprecedented proportions. The World Health Organization has estimated a potential death toll of as many as 150 million people.