Every few years, there’s a story in the news about an impending global health crisis—SARS, mad cow disease, West Nile, etc. I normally tune such stories out because the news reports sound so much like a bad tv movie that they don’t even seem real to me. But the latest issue of the Economist drew my attention to the burgeoning pandemic world health threat—influenza—and I realized it’s time for all of us to start paying attention. (See this link, but for the full article subscription is required.)

Avian influenza, or bird flu, is currently endemic in south east Asia. Although only fifty people have died thus far as a result of the disease, it is spreading through birds to new areas and some virologists worry that it could eventually kill millions. Just in the past week, the disease was reported in birds and one person in Russia and Kazakhstan. Scientists fear that the disease will mutate and keep spreading to new parts of the world, resulting in a worldwide flu pandemic. For those of us who come down with the flu every winter, it’s hard to imagine the flu being a global killer. But it wouldn’t be the first time…Three global influenza pandemics occurred in the twentieth century. In 1918, the worst case, at least twenty million people died of influenza and one-fourth of the world’s population was affected. To brush up on the bird flu, check out the BBC’s helpful backgrounder at this link.

The bird flu doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds, however. Recent studies in Science and Nature magazines suggest that a relatively small stockpile of anti-viral drugs could, if well deployed, prevent a flu pandemic. But what does it require? International coordination and cooperation. Indeed, the BBC writes, “A global pandemic of bird flu claiming millions of lives could be stopped if governments work together.” Governments need to arrange the stockpile of drugs, delivery mechanisms, surveillance systems and agreements on disease containment.

The avian flu is just one more example of the incredible opportunities to work together to save lives that the world’s leaders face today. Let’s hope American leaders seize them. Since we can, we must be prepared ahead of time for a global health crisis. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. I think that the Economist puts it well. “Flu does not respect borders. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure that developing countries, especially in Asia, are also well prepared…[I]f richer nations were willing to donate anti-viral drugs and guarantee a supply of any vaccine that becomes available, poorer nations might be willing to reach agreements over surveillance and preparedness.”