(CP) - An influenza pandemic would dramatically disrupt the processing and distribution of food supplies across the world, emptying grocery store shelves and creating crippling shortages for months, an expert warned Thursday.
Dr. Michael Osterholm suggested policy makers must start intensive planning to figure out how to ensure food supplies for their populations during a time when international travel may be grounded or severely cut back, when workers are too sick to process or deliver food and when people will be too fearful of disease to gather in restaurants.
Food and other essential goods like drugs and surgical masks will be available at best in limited supplies, Osterholm cautioned in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, which devoted a number of articles to the threat of pandemic influenza.
He saved his most flatly worded warning, however, for a news conference organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, which publishes the respected journal. In an interview from Washington following the briefing, he repeated his blunt message.
"We're pretty much screwed right now," said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Osterholm said the "just-in-time" delivery model by which modern corporations operate means food distribution networks don't have warehouses brimming with months worth of inventory.
Most grocery store chains have only several days worth of their most popular commodities in warehouses, he explained, with perhaps 30 days worth of stock for less popular items.
He pointed to the short-term shortages that occur when winter storms threaten communities, then suggested people envisage the possibility of those shortages dragging on for somewhere between 18 months and three years as the expected successive waves of pandemic flu buffet the world.
"I think we'll have a very limited food supply," he said in the interview.
"As soon as you shut down both the global travel and trade . . . and (add to it) the very real potential to shut down over-land travel within a country, there are very few areas that will be hit as quickly as will be food, given the perishable nature of it."
Osterholm has been one of the most vocal proponents of the urgent need to prepare for a flu pandemic that could sicken at least a third of the world's population and kill many millions. However, he is not alone in fearing the world may be facing a pandemic, widely viewed as the single most disruptive and deadly infectious disease event known to humankind.
The lingering outbreak of the H5N1 avian flu strain that has decimated poultry stocks in wide swathes of Southeast Asia has influenza experts the world over losing sleep over the possibility the highly virulent virus will mutate or evolve to the point where it can spread to and among humans, starting a pandemic.
According to the official World Health Organization tally, at least 103 people have been infected with H5N1 influenza since December 2003 in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia. That count doesn't include a farm worker in Indonesia who was recently confirmed to have been infected with - and recovered from - H5N1.
It also doesn't include six new cases which came to light this week in media reports from Vietnam. While Vietnamese authorities haven't notified WHO of the cases, the agency said in a statement Thursday the reports "appear to be accurate."
Official and unofficial tallies put the human death toll at 54 since December 2003.
Laurie Garrett, a fellow at the council, noted the unprecedented potential of a pandemic to wreak economic and political havoc.
"Frankly no models of social response to such a pandemic have managed to factor in fully the potential effect on human productivity," Garrett, a Pulitzer-prize winning former journalist and author of The Coming Plague, said in an article in the journal.
"It is therefore impossible to reckon accurately the potential global economic impact."
Osterholm said it is incumbent on governments to start identifying essential basic commodities and figuring out supply and delivery for a time when long-distance truckers may balk at travelling to affected communities and armed forces personnel may be too sick to fill in the gaps.
I'd say Run Away! Run Away!, but there's no place left to run away to, is there?