The newest LDS urban legend? [updated]

[IMPORTANT NOTE: There appears to be an official disclaimer from Dr. Puls regarding the e-mail below.]

[Also, thanks to Emily Jensen at Mormon Times for the link and the kind words.]

I received from a friend the following e-mail (note that my critiques come after the e-mail — and I have significant updates below):

Subject: Pandemic

About a month ago a seminar was put on by Dr. Susan Puls, who is a cardiologist appointed by the First Presidency of the LDS Church as the head of the church’s pandemic committee. She said she was not an expert on pandemics as this was not her specialty, but in the two years she’s been in her position, is fast becoming her specialty. She now works for the church on a full-time basis working on planning for the pandemic and trying to get the word out to as many church members as possible. There were about 1400 people at the Saturday all-day seminar.

In her capacity, she works with the governor’s pandemic committee and the federal pandemic planning agency. She also said a pandemic is coming – not ‘maybe’ but is DEFINITELY coming. She says _the pandemic is expected within the next two years but she personally believes it will be ‘sooner rather than later..’ The various groups (CDC, WHO, etc..) do not know what the pandemic will be but ‘first among their list of suspects is the avian bird flu. It’s only one mutation away from being easily transmitted from birds to humans and from human to human.’

She said the World Health Organization expects 40% of the world population to become sick. Of those who become sick, they expect 50% will die. If you do the math – there are over 6 billion people on the earth today – that puts the death rate at over 1.4 billion people – and she says these deaths will happen over only a 3 to 4 month period of time.

Dr. Puls related that when the pandemic hits the US, mandatory quarantine’s of all infected and NON-INFECTED peoples will occur within the first 48 hours. Only emergency personnel (Dr’s, nurses, firemen, police, national guardsmen, etc..) will be allowed to leave their homes – not even to go to the store, etc. This quarantine will last during the duration of the ‘pandemic cycle’ which will last approximately three months.

Her main point was that everyone will need a *MINIMUM of 3 months supply of food at home* as the governments of the world will be overwhelmed within the first week and cannot be counted on to provide food, medical help, etc..

She only briefly spoke on the ‘social disruption’ that will occur and did not go into any detail about what plans may, or may not exist, to deal with this. However – think about this – if your neighbors (both those you know and strangers) run out of food and are starving how might they react? Then think of all the individuals who already live outside of the law and are only ‘controlled’ by our current legal system. How might they react when law enforcement becomes innefectual due to illness among the ranks and those who abandon their jobs to stay home and protect their own families. Ditto for the national guard and our own military.

This isn’t to scare anyone – just to provide a ‘heads up’ as ‘to be forewarned is to be forearmed.’ ”,11666,8041-1-4414-1,00.html

The government also had a website:

My first reaction to this was it was yet another LDS urban legend e-mail making the rounds; it didn’t sound credible. It sounded less and less credible as I actually did some digging around. (More after the jump.)

Some Googling uncovered this same text quoted on several LDS-oriented websites as well as on at least one anti-LDS website, but I could not find any original, credible sources for these specific claims (though keep reading the post). A bit more investigation uncovered the following information:

Dr. Susan Puls is (or was, until crippled by arthiritis) an orthopedic surgeon (PDF), not a cardiologist.

Dr. Puls is clearly cited at as doing neonatal resuscitation work in developing countries for the Church (PDF). I can find no mention in official LDS sources of her being involved with any “pandemic” investigation, much less the “head of the church’s pandemic committee”.  On the other hand, she is cited as an attendee of a meeting of the Utah Governor’s Task Force on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PDF) back in November 2006, and there are at least a few more credible web postings indicating her speaking on the subject of pandemics in Church settings (see below). Most interestingly, a recent (January 2009) source (PDF) claims that:

Last month, it was announced Dr. Susan Puls would be speaking on this subject on January 25, 2009 at the Spanish Fork East Stake Center. Sister Puls is no longer doing public speaking so will not be lecturing as previously announced. However Kenneth Moraveck who is an expert on pandemics and contributed heavily to the Provident Living website, will be speaking in her place and he is excellent! (p. 4)

Before going on, let me make it clear that while it appears that Dr. Puls may well have given talks in LDS Church settings on preparation for a pandemic, I don’t believe she made the claims that I’m about to debunk. The best sources I have been able to find (cited and linked to below) indicate that her comments were pretty much in line with what’s at the website, rather than the outrageous claims made above.

Dr. Puls is quoted above as saying, in effect, that 1.4 billion people will die over a 3-4 month period, or roughly 20% of the global population. (Specifically, she’s quoted as saying that 40% of the world population will be infected and 50% of those will die.) However, only 2.5 to 5% of the global population died in the last great pandemic (the Spanish Flu in 1918), and a 2006 Harvard study published in Lancet estimated that the mortality from a similar pandemic involving avian flu today would result in only 62 million deaths, or about 1% of the global population.

Dr. Puls is quoted as saying that a quarantine of all non-infected personnel will be imposed within 48 hours and will last for three months. By contrast, the US Department of Health and Human Services document discussing quarantine in the face of a pandemic (PDF file) talks primarily about (both voluntary and monitored) quarantine of infected and exposed personnel and talks about such quarantine lasting for “1 to 10 days” (see p. 8). It discusses some community actions — such as “snow days” or shutting down certain public events — as possibly being of help. The actual confinement of non-infected people to their houses — cordone sanitaire — is explicitly described as “unlikely to prevent the introduction or spread of pandemic disease except in uncommon or unique circumstances (such as in a community able to be completely self-sufficient” (p. 12).

Beyond that, this “three months for non-infected personnel” fails the logic test, since most of the US would starve within about 30 to 60 days of such a quarantine — not just because of a lack of food storage on the part of most people, but because the food supply chain within the US would empty out without the supplies to refill it.

Finally, there are serious questions as to how effective any form of quarantine would be for pandemic flu.

Dr. Puls is quoted as saying that the Church is recommending a three-months food supply in case of a pandemic. The actual guidelines given at the Church’s Provident Living website is two weeks (within the United States). In fact, most of the information about pandemic preparation at contradicts the wild claims made in the e-mail above and is more in line with the other sources I’ve cited.

Allegedly, Dr. Puls spoke at a seminar attended by “1400 people”. I have tracked down a few references to this; one source (scroll most of the way down) states it to have been “a preparedness fair in Spanish Fork, Utah, August 23, 2008”, where Dr. Puls was the “keynote speaker”; the details given make none of the (debunked) claims above, but are generally in line with the previously cited information about pandemic preparation at Another source cites a fireside with Dr. Puls that occured on June 7, 2008, but gives no details at all.

Yet another person claims personally to have attended a seminar with Dr. Puls; she says that it occurred “last summer” but she didn’t write about until late in January (because, she says, “I thought that most of you sisters would totally freak out- basically, so I have been hesitant to pass on the [info]”). As with the two sources above, her posting on it differs in significant respects from the e-mail I received and (like those sources) sounds a bit more credible. It makes no mention of 40% of the world becoming infected and 50% of those dying, though it does use both of those percentages in ways that could be later misinterpreted (deliberately or accidentally). It doesn’t mention non-infected people being quarantined at home for 3 months; it does mention having a 3-months food supply (actually it mentions having  a one-year’s food supply — no surprise — of which 3 months is regular rotation food stocks).  I left a comment there for the author (April Widmer), who replied as follows:

Yes, I did personally attend the seminar when Dr. Puls spoke at Spanish Fork South Stake Self Reliance Fair held August 23, 2008. I am not sure about your numbers, but my notes stated that 88% of people that got it died. She did talk about a “reverse quarantine” that would require us to stay home for a extended amount of time and suggested that we have a 90 supply of food and reserves for that time as well as 9 months of bulk storage, and financial reserves. She said that that would be to protect our families and ourselves from being infected/and or infecting others. She suggested that we stock pile masks, latex gloves and anti-viral medications. She also stated that we are “over due for a pandemic”. I have since heard someone who is a member of the Medical Reserve Corps, both of which are connected with Homeland Security who taught the same information concerning a reverse quarantine.

Here is a URL for the Spanish Fork South Stake Self Reliance Fair where you can get more information if you would like. You can also contact me with any another questions you might have. I asked my husband as well as my friend who attended with me, and we all agreed and checked our notes to be the same.

I think the “reverse quarantine” that April is talking about is probably “social distancing” (PDF), which means in effect trying not to expose yourself to sick people — which is something quite different from the state-imposed quarantine talked about in the e-mail. And while the reported mortality rate of humans diagnosed with avian flu is high, there are serious questions whether the mortality rate for the flu itself is being overstated because of the unknown number of people who come down with it and recover without ever being diagnosed.

In the meantime, if you get this e-mail, or any of its variants, please do not pass it along. Instead, if you feel the need to warn others, simply point people at the pandemic section of  Thanks.  ..bruce..

6 thoughts on “The newest LDS urban legend? [updated]

  1. Ha! You might guess how much I like it when someone tracks an email farce to its roots! Thanks for doing this.

    Our RS president has been concerned about a possible pandemic, but encourages us only to have a few weeks’ emergency supplies on hand, and to pay-your-debts-get-out-of-debt-don’t-buy-what-you-don’t-need standard advice. The same has been true of our bishop, who has used the 5th Sunday bully pulpit to speak of provident living a couple of times. We’ve been reminded that in the case of a contagious disease we might want to reduce our public exposure, and to recognize that even if stores can stay stocked, the employees might be ill or home taking care of ill families — there might be a defacto if not a dejure quarantine, in other words.

    Nobody around here has scheduled any special seminar, and *certainly* nobody has given such numerically astounding predictions!

    Why do people fall for these scaremails? Nobody quoted BKPacker’s last conference talk, but innumerable people circulated the bogus version of the talk he may or may not have given a week later in his home ward — would he really warn a single ward of a coming disaster without warning the rest of the church? Would the church warn of a pandemic through some seminar that reached a vanishingly small part of the church without warning us all? Does the Lord really who gets the chance to prepare for such a thing based on the happenstance of who is on somebody’s email mailing list?

    If the answer is no, then why fall for such hyperventilations? They’re dangerous, because people tend to discount the official, calmer calls for preparation because they’re drowned out by these more sensational appeals.

    Sorry for writing my own post-length comment. You touched a nerve. Thanks for tracking this one down.

  2. Sorry for writing my own post-length comment.

    Hey, I appreciate any comments, and the longer, the better. Besides, Ardis, you know first-hand the lengths of most of my comments on other blogs, so I would be the last to complain. 🙂 ..bruce..

  3. There is a certain class of person that this kind of UL speaks to:

    1. “Sky Is Falling”/Lord is Coming sign looking everywhere folks.
    2. Those who have bought a lot of the provident living stuff (2 – 3 years of food… shelves… water… generators…)
    3. Folks who make money off the other two.

    The first two desperately *want* the world to end so that they can be proven to be “right”. The third is simply evil.

  4. Oh, only 62 million people would die. Whew, that’s a relief!
    Actually, I’m glad to see this information. This is a good site. A two-week supply is certainly more feasible than 3 months, although I think we should try to eventually build up to 3 months.

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