Hide the tuna, without delay

If Pandemic explodes and results in panic, provisions will run low

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Thurday, March 28, 2006


Have you started hiding tuna under your bed yet? The recent advice from Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to stockpile tuna in preparation for a global pandemic of bird flu has given comics fodder for jokes. It seems like duct tape all over again, with a bit of Y2K paranoia blended in for good measure.

But were his remarks really so silly? Maybe not.

In 1664 the Great Plague closed Cambridge University and Isaac Newton was forced to take a sabbatical. Newton used the time to work on his research, including inventing much of calculus and optics. Astronomers are grateful that he figured out how to use mirrors to produce images. These concave mirrors form the basis of all modern, large telescopes. You have the oppositely shaped, convex mirror on your car, which shows things that are "closer than they appear."

Pandemics can kill millions

It is estimated that the Great Plague killed 100,000 people -- one out of five Londoners. This was a far smaller pandemic than the Black Death, which killed a third of all Europeans three centuries earlier.

Pandemics have occurred throughout recorded history, with memorable ones during the last century. The worst on record was the "Spanish flu" of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people worldwide. And, keep in mind that was at a mortality rate of only about 5 percent.

What would be the worst case for the bird flu pandemic? Should we start stockpiling tuna? And why would we hide it?

Right now the only people who are getting bird flu are those handling fowl. That's the good news. The bad news is the mortality rate is 10 times that of the 1918 flu, with half the people getting it dying. It also is not restricted to the young or frail -- you can get taken out even if you pump iron regularly.

It's also true that it is not yet passing from human to human. It could evolve to where it does that -- mutations are already happening, and indeed are the reason that it would be difficult or impossible to produce a flu shot to prevent it. We just don't know what the final, killer virus will be like.

If it finally acquires the ability to spread directly, its spread will be rapid. We did not have FedEx in 1918. We barely had airplanes. We did not have antibiotics, either, that could be useful for secondary bacterial infections (but not the virus). Who will win the battle -- modern medicine or global transportation?

The one strategy that will work is quarantine. Schools should be closed. No large crowds -- sorry, but no Final Four unless you want a real killer March Madness. There could be shortages of medical personnel -- will doctors risk their own lives?

Groceries likely to be scarce

If you have to stay home, you will need substantial food reserves. The "just in time" stocking procedure used today means that there will not be enough food on grocery shelves for everyone. This will make those flurry-driven bread buyouts in Charlotte look like cakewalks.

In the worse case there could be power failures. Does Duke Energy have a plan when workers can't show up? If it happens during winter, this will have serious consequences.
Given the FEMA reaction to Katrina, don't count on the feds to help. I think all you can expect from the current administration is advice "not to worry," like we've been told about terrorism. If it hits in 2008, the next administration will not have time to do anything but clean up afterward.

The Y2K wackos stored provisions before New Millennium Eve. Confident that my fellow geeks had fixed important software, I stocked extra rum for the celebration, not extra tuna. Best to check the Mormon Web sites if you want a list of what to stock -- their faith has always had them stock a year of food.

The kids will need to borrow a home school curriculum. I'll take home a bunch of data to analyze during my own forced sabbatical.

Battles over food?

When it comes, it will come fast. Some thought and planning ahead are probably wise, and extra provisions can become just an extended pantry. If the pandemic explodes and panic sets in, there will not be provisions enough for everybody. In the worst case scenario, there may be battles between the prepared and their unprepared and starving neighbors, reminiscent of that "Twilight Zone" episode "The Shelter." The situation could get ugly, so hide the tuna. And start soon.

Things are closer than they appear.

Daniel B. Caton

Observer community columnist Daniel B. Caton is observatory director and astronomy professor at Appalachian State University. Write him at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, or by e-mail at catondb@appstate.edu.