Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bird Flu

As I have pointed out on several occasions, the possibility of an avian flu epidemic is something churches have to consider seriously -- but I don't see too many doing it. I have for the last few months been part of the list, and Dr. Tim Foggin, the owner of the list and a Christian physician from western Canada, has been getting to us lots of good and helpful information.

This group is not filled with hysterical over-hype, much as some of the media outlets have handled it, but contains good information about avian flu and responses we should make to it. Slowly, here and there, people are discovering that Christian communities need to be involved in thinking about this possible reality, and need to be planning with it in mind. Now the Bishops of Toronto, Huron, and Nagara in the Anglican Church of Canada have created a working group to consider the implications of a possible pandemic.

However, I see very limited thinking and preparing going on in the United States. Indeed, while cases of avian flu among birds are in Europe, Asia, and Africa, there is that strange sense that we ought not to be bothered about it, but this is typically American ostrich-like behavior. But we need to be warned that any disease of this kind, if it jumps to humans and then can be spread human-to-human will be global. Period.

This virus has a similar structure to the one that caused the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 in which upwards of 20 million people died, so should it break out and mutate to infect humans with ease, then we can expect that it will cause considerable disruption, and the possibility of significant loss of life. Having said that, if it were to follow the 1918 pattern most of those who catch the disease are likely to recover and then get on with their lives. My father had Spanish Influenza as a little boy and went on to live to the ripe old age of 85!

The time is here for congregations, dioceses, and every kind of ecclesiastical jurisdiction to begin thinking about the protocols that needs to be developed to handle the possibility of a pandemic -- and that may include suspending activities for several weeks. The Department of Health and Human Services has produced a "Faith-base and Community Organizations Pandemic Influenza Checklist" that has good advice in the run-up to a possible health crisis like this. In these highly polarized and divided times this, brothers and sisters, is something we can and should do together: viruses are no respecters of differing theologies...

It is important, for example, that we identify those connected to our congregations who are most at risk: the elderly, the disabled, the very young, and those with particularly complex health problems already. These are the ones who need to be most protected, but there are lots of simple personal hygene activities that would increase our chances of not getting sick. For example, I have already told myself that as soon as there is an outbreak of human-to-human avian flu anywhere in the world I am going to temporarily move our congregation from a common cup to individual "shot glasses." We may even need to think about developing food banks and means whereby our parishioners can get the basics of life, for a lot of commerce is likely to grind to a halt for a season. In addition, there could very well be sporadic rashes of significant unemployment.

The pastoral challenges to pastors will be great, and we need to develop ways of keeping in contact with each of our congregants as many people are going to avoid public places and meetings like church services. We need to be thinking of alternative ways of ministering to spiritual needs, as well as ready ourselves to conduct an increased number of funerals. The last summer I lived in England in the 1970s was one of the hottest on record and I conducted more funerals in July and August than ever in my ministry, this is wearying and spiritually-demanding work -- particularly if the grieving are not known to you and are frightened themselves.

Clergy may not be in the front line of those fighting a possible pandemic, but we are in the mix of helping to feed the souls of society as well as maintaining society's stability -- as you can be sure there will be a lot of hysteria. If people don't come by that hysteria naturally, we can be certain that there will be voices and media outlets that will feed any frenzy.

Meanwhile, we don't know whether this will happen, or when. The message is to be vigilant.


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