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Are we ready?

Nunn and Turner warn Georgia to prepare for biological disaster

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I'm going to hit you with some serious stuff -- like what will happen in Georgia if the avian flu comes winging in with all of the panache of the plague. I'm going to use language that's alarmist, words such as "civilization buster." I doubt there'll ever be pickup trucks crawling through McMansion neighborhoods with the drivers bellowing, "Bring out your dead," but things could get almost as frightening.

Think of post-Katrina New Orleans on the scale of a whole state. Or the entire nation.

Before scaring the bejesus out of you, I should let you know that two of Georgia's leading citizens are doing something about the nightmare threats facing the world. It's what they commune about. It's their mission.

So, let's eavesdrop on an exchange this week at Georgia Tech between those two high-profile guys, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and media mogul and all-around rascal Ted Turner.

Turner: "Sam, have you seen that article, you know, the New Yorker article?"

Nunn: "Um, what article?"

Turner: "You know, the one on the nuclear stuff."

Nunn: "Nuclear?"

Turner: "Yeah, and Iran ..."

Nunn: "Iran?"

Turner: "The one by Sy [Seymour] Hersh."

Nunn: "Oh, yeah, of course I saw it."

Turner: "Well, I sent it to you just in case."

Nunn: "Thanks. But I always discount Sy Hersh."

Turner: "Discount?"

Nunn: "Yeah, discount, but only by 10 percent. I knock 10 percent off of whatever Sy Hersh writes."

Turner: "You do?"

Nunn: "I do. But only 10 percent. The other 90 percent I pay attention to."

The two men gazed at each other for a minute, and then turned to even more serious business. "You OK, Ted?" Nunn asked. Turner allowed, "Problems, yes, I've got problems." Nunn raised his eyebrows and looked worried. Turner smiled, turned to walk away and groused over his shoulder, "Women problems. Always women problems."

The Hersh article in the New Yorker that prompted the exchange detailed Bush administration plans to launch an attack -- possibly using tactical nuclear weapons -- on Iran. Whether Hersh was on target or not -- and he has a strong record of accuracy, most recently for revealing the U.S. torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison -- Nunn and Turner have invested much of their political capital in diminishing threats from weapons of mass destruction.

"If you can do something, you've got to do it or we're all in big trouble," Turner told me. "Sam and I can do something."

In 2001, Turner did do something by funding a group headed by Nunn, the Nuclear Threat Initiative. It's because of that group's work to decrease the spread of hellish weapons, whether in the hands of governments or terrorists, that Nunn is paying 90 percent heed to Hersh's warnings.

But there's more on the NTI's agenda than mushroom clouds. The unlikely duo -- Nunn's the archetype of the "conservative Southern Democrat," while Turner is, well, the billionaire Capt. Outrageous -- were at Tech to host a session on biological threats.

Joining them were public health officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia's Division of Public Health, Rand Corp. researchers, a gaggle of corporate executives ... and damn few reporters. That's significant.

"The media situation could get out of control," said one of the speakers, Dr. Nicole Lurie of the Rand Corp., a California think tank. What she means is that in an emergency, the media could create havoc -- or provide life-saving information.

Dr. J. Patrick O'Neal, Georgia's public health medical director, added, "One thing we've learned is to prepare messaging. Georgia has 18 health districts, and we're not fully centralized."

O'Neal said the state is rushing to prepare a media strategy for a major catastrophe. "I just hope a pandemic doesn't hit in the next few weeks or months," he said.

The raw, unvarnished fact is that some biological calamity is going to hit. Someday. Probably sooner than later.

Maybe it will be terrorists spreading smallpox, anthrax or botulism. Maybe the avian flu will mutate so that it can spread from bird to human to human to human to many, many more humans.

In 1918, for example, the "Spanish flu" killed more people than World War I. The bug was responsible for 20 million to 50 million deaths. Half a million Americans died.

The avian flu isn't yet a pandemic because it spreads to humans only after intensive contact with sick birds. In one of the countries that has seen the flu jump species, Turkey, television footage has shown children playing with dead, infected chickens. The Turks didn't know the deadliness of the flu virus; the media didn't tell them.

Flu viruses mutate. Already, among the roughly 200 people who have been infected, the death rate is 56 percent. If the bug morphs, consider what such a death rate would mean in a town, state or nation.

Recently, the Royal Institution of Great Britain said the avian flu bug, dubbed H5N1, "is a new virus to which human beings have no immunity, rendering it lethal to people. If the warnings from the scientific community are correct, the resulting pandemic could kill millions of people worldwide, spread by jet travel at a rate well ahead of the ability of public health systems to respond."

How many people? Estimates of 150 million aren't considered extreme by those attending the Georgia Tech symposium. In 1918, international travel was, compared with today, rare and slow. In 2006, a disease could have landed in scores of countries before anyone was aware of the danger.

How many deaths would it take to overwhelm Georgia? At the NTI session, no one could give me an estimate. But every factor -- from the critical shortage of nurses to the availability of vaccine to muddled communications -- forecasts dire scenarios.

The biggest of the big horrors: Intentional spread of disease would be one of the most accessible forms of terrorism and as devastating as a nuclear explosion. Last year, after "table top" exercises in which members of Congress grappled with the impact of a small nuclear or biological assault, Christopher Cox, former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said either event could be a "civilization buster."

Colin Powell, in 1993, while chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and while still possessing pre-Iraq War credibility), said, "Of all the various weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons are of the greatest concern to me ... the one that scares me to death."

And that brings us back to the media. With such civilization-devouring monsters so in reach of terrorists -- or so easily evolving naturally from wayward viruses -- why are we so complacent?

"A few weeks before 9/11," Nunn said, "I participated in a smallpox exercise. I played the president. We showed vivid photographs of smallpox victims. We didn't get one inch of publicity.

"Two weeks later, with the anthrax scare after 9/11, everybody wanted those pictures. I didn't give them out. I didn't want to cause a panic."

Nunn had a brutal assessment of that episode. "We weren't ready" for a major biological disaster, he said. The fallout Nunn feared was panic.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative website is www.nti.org. Senior Editor John Sugg can be reached at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com. His blog is at www.johnsugg.com.

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