New Reports Detail Bird Flu Impact on U.S. Economy
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON — A pandemic of bird flu could cause a serious recession of the U.S. economy, with immediate costs of between $500 billion and $675 billion, according to two estimates released on Thursday.
Both assume the H5N1 avian influenza now destroying flocks of poultry across Asia and parts of Europe makes the jump into humans and causes serious disease.
So far, H5N1 has killed 69 people and infected 135, but world health experts say it is very close to mutating into a form that easily passes among people.
If it does, it would likely closely resemble the 1918 pandemic strain of flu that killed anywhere between 20 million and 100 million people during World War I, both reports say. This means 30 percent of the population would be infected and more than 2 percent would die, the report from the Congressional Budget Office presumes.
"Further, CBO assumed that those who survived would miss three weeks of work, either because they were sick, because they feared the risk of infection at work, or because they needed to care of family or friends," the report reads.
"In addition to workers’ absences, many businesses (such as restaurants and movie theaters) would probably suffer a falloff in demand because people would be afraid to patronize them or because the authorities would close them."
Doctor’s offices and hospitals would be overcrowded, the CBO predicts.
"Currently, the United States has approximately 970,000 staffed hospital beds and 100,000 ventilators, with three-quarters of them in use on any given day. As a result, shortages could occur in critical areas such as ventilators, critical care beds, and drugs to treat secondary infections," the report reads.
HOSPITALS SPREADING INFECTION
Hospitals would have difficulty controlling infection and might become sources for spreading the illness, the CBO said — a fear echoed by another group, the National Center for Policy Analysis .
A second report from New Jersey based WBB Securities LLC estimated 35 percent of the population would become ill and 5 percent would die.
It predicts a one-year economic loss of $488 billion and a permanent economic loss of $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy.
"If the influenza affected humans at the same level of virulence as the current H5N1 strain, practically all patients would require hospitalization, which would result in a shortage of some 6.5 million hospital beds per day during the pandemic," the WBB report reads.
"Police, fire, sanitation and other critical service providers will be strained with short staff and overtime work, which will impact municipal and state budgets," it adds.
"There may even be civil disturbances caused by people who either believe they can take advantage of the situation or who feel they have little chance of survival so they may as well enjoy themselves while they can."
The reports support other predictions that have been made about the potential effect on the U.S. economy. The World Bank has predicted a pandemic could cost the global economy $800 billion a year.
U.S. President George W. Bush released a $7.1 billion bird flu plan in November but Congress has yet to fund it. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he hopes for legislation before the recess this month, but many conservatives are afraid the deficit is already too big and want to make cuts to pay for the spending.
One part of the plan involves building stockpiles of influenza drugs, which would not provide a cure but which might help make the most vulnerable patients less ill.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey in Washington)