A “Ticking Time Bomb” for Bird Flu

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One segment of the country is very unprepared for the avian flu — should it ever reach our shores in a severe form — according to a new study out of Saint Louis University. Although this segment of the U.S. is rather insular, and distinctly set apart from most of us, the bird flu would have little trouble spreading to the communities around it. We are talking here about our nation’s prisons.

 Since news of the bird flu started escalating, countries around the world have taken some measures to prepare themselves in case it poses a threat of causing an epidemic (confined to a city, region, or small state), or worse, a pandemic (a country-wide threat).

 Hospitals, schools, cities, and businesses have developed plans in advance to deal with the threat; however, jails and prisons in the United States have not, according to the new study, and thus they represent a dangerous breeding ground for the bird flu.

 As we all know, prisoners can get paroled. Visitors also come to the jail. Security guards and medical personnel work there, but they certainly don’t live there. There are many scenarios where the bird flu could swiftly reach out beyond the walls of a prison. The researchers highlight the release of prisoners as a “real threat to society” and it has nothing to do with their probability of re-offending. The bird flu — because it contains a viral structure our bodies are unfamiliar with — can be fatal for those individuals with young or weakened immune systems.

 Researchers note that 85% of the imprisoned population will be released within one year. Not surprisingly, the study was presented recently at the Correctional Medicine Institute’s 2006 meeting. The country has more than two million people locked behind bars and incarceration makes them “highly vulnerable.” Already prisoners have higher rates of illness than the normal population does — diseases such as hepatitis C, HIV, and drug-resistant tuberculosis are more present in prisoners.

 They call prisons a “ticking time bomb” because not only is disease rampant inside them, but also because 80% of inmates arrive at jail already sick with some form of illness. Everybody is crowded together and diseases that weaken the body’s immune system are common. So their bodies are even less prepared than ours are for the bird flu. To top it off, many government officials are reluctant to dish out proper medical care to prisoners — care such as flu vaccines.

 Since the bird flu can spread so quickly, not looking after incarcerated individuals can be looked at as equivalent to not looking after the communities that reside within an arm’s reach of the prisons.

 Here’s a bit of food for thought: The average length of jail time is only 48 hours. It’s just long enough for a person to catch a virus and then leave.