The possibility of a deadly flu erupting worldwide has led local officials to beef up emergency resources and re-work their disaster scenarios for the county.
Health experts around the globe are warning of the threat posed by the current strain of the avian flu, noting that humans are long overdue for a global pandemic.
The current outbreak, which has infected people in nine countries, is not a pandemic because relatively few people (about 150) have become ill from the virus. There are no cases of infected birds or people in the U.S. at this time.
The county’s Health Department, however, is trying to raise awareness about the importance of being prepared for a deadly outbreak. Dr. Peggy Borenstein, the county health officer, presented information on pandemic flu and avian flu to about 100 officials and residents at Howard Community College on April 4.
“Should a pandemic occur in the United States, in our area, there could be dire consequences,” Borenstein said. “The [avian flu] is a very ominous situation for the globe. … It is the most important threat we are facing now.”
An influenza pandemic occurs when a new virus emerges that the population has no immunity to, that can cause serious illness and can spread easily from person to person. The current avian flu strain has met the first two criteria.
There have been three flu pandemics in the 20th century, most recently the Asian Flu Pandemic (1957-58) that killed 70,000 people in the U.S. The worst pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, which caused about 500,000 deaths in the U.S. and 50 million worldwide.
The potential recurrence of the Spanish Flu scenario is what has health officials concerned. There is currently no vaccine for the avian flu, although the illness appears to respond to oseltamivir (commonly known as Tamiflu) and may be responsive to other drugs.
More than 40 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa have reported finding infected birds or poultry since 2003. Federal officials recently announced plans to increase testing of wild birds, predicting the virus could arrive in the U.S. by the end of this year via birds migrating to Alaska.
The local effort to prepare for a pandemic has been spearheaded by the Health Department, which is working with both state officials and other county authorities.
Borenstein said much of the preparation is similar to preparation for bioterrorism and other emergencies, and noted the county’s experience with overwhelmed flu clinics and mass vaccinations during the flu vaccine shortage of 2004.
The Health Department’s plans include ways to deliver large quantities of vaccine and medicine and quickly communicate important health information. It is also working with Howard County General Hospital (HCGH), the school system and other medical providers to handle the possibility of a large increase in sick people.
HCGH has a written plan to deal with a rush of infected patients by using its adjoining ambulatory building as a hospital, said Mary Patton, director of public relations. That building has heating and cooling units that would serve patients who must be isolated or quarantined. The hospital would also stop all unnecessary surgery.
“We have a plan in place to handle any kind of emergency that would require us to have an overflow of patients,” Patton said.
The hospital works closely with county, state and national officials on plans, especially on accommodating patients from other locations. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, for example, HCGH received patients from Washington, D.C.-area hospitals so those hospitals could focus on treating victims of the attacks.
“This is not something we do in a vacuum,” Patton said about emergency preparedness. “I think that’s something we all learned during 9-11.”
The county’s school system is also developing pandemic flu plans, especially on preventing the spread of respiratory illness.
Many of the basic plans are already in place because of other emergency scenarios, said Ron Miller, manager of safety, environment and risk management. “Right now, this is more of an appendix to our overall plan.”
The school system also recently assembled two committees to deal specifically with the flu issue.
“We are going to be getting out more information about preventative measures … so there is going to be more information coming from the school system that coincides with what’s coming from the county,” Miller said.
The health services department of the school system is at the helm of preventive education. Donna Heller, health services coordinator, said information about prevention (especially handwashing and smothering coughs) will be sent to administrators , who will pass it on to parents and guardians.
Nurses and health assistants will also be coming into classes and lunch rooms to teach about prevention, Heller said.
At the HCC seminar, Borenstein noted the importance of personal hygiene methods, such as handwashing, covering one’s cough and staying home during illness.
“They may sound trivial, but in fact they are really important,” she said, explaining that during an outbreak, people may need to isolate themselves from others and become more self-reliant.
Getting an annual flu shot is a good idea because it may protect people from seasonal flu and, if an outbreak occurs, will allow medical care providers to focus on people with pandemic flu.
The “best medicine” in an outbreak is having a lot of water, non-perishable food and a stack of books (in case of isolation), Borenstein said. “We need everybody to be thinking about not only their emergency plans … but specifically pandemic flu.”