Town Hall meeting addresses community preparedness in event of pandemic flu

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At times it was unsettling, but throughout Tuesday night’s town hall meeting to discuss what this community would do in the event of a pandemic disease outbreak – it was all informative and interesting.

Presented by the Switzerland County Health Department and Public Health Coordinator Rocky Hollingsworth, the meeting brought together experts with community health officials and interested members of the community to discuss the “what ifs” of a possible pandemic flu.

The meeting centered on pandemic flu primarily because avian flu – commonly called “bird flu” has been in the news in other parts of the world. Although there are no cases of bird flu in North America, experts on Tuesday night discussed how such a virus might make its way around the world and across the country.

WHAT IS INFLUENZA?

The first speaker of the evening was Steve Allen, the State of Indiana’s epidemiologist. He discussed what influenza is and how it goes from being a virus to an epidemic to a pandemic.

He told the audience that a “flu epidemic” is primarily a local or regional outbreak. Generally 5-20 percent of the community is impacted, and that it tends to be seasonal in nature.

Should an influenza virus spread around the world, infecting millions of people, then it could become a “pandemic”. There have been three instances of pandemic flu in this country in the past century – but another outbreak is always a possibility.

“Usually with a pandemic flu, it’s a new virus that no one has seen before,” Steve Allen said. “Then there’s no protection against it.”

He said that there are three types of influenza: Type A infects humans and animals and is capable of major genetic changes; Type B is only found in humans and is generally less severe; and Type C is mostly asymptomatic.

What most people know as Bird Flu is Type A, and currently is being found in some wild birds in Asia. There have been some limited human cases, but Steve Allen said that those cases resulted in those people having direct contact with sick birds. At this time, there has only been one case of human to human infection, but both of those people died, so there is no carrier.

But as parts of the country limit exposure to infected birds, Steve Allen said that because a Type A influenza is capable of genetic changes; it could at some point mutate to a human to human virus.

Steve Allen said that with modern travel today, if such a flu were to mutate, it would spread quickly across the world.

“It would be rapid spreading, have a high death rate, would put a significant burden on the medical system, and would impact social and educational structures,” Steve Allen said.

With a pandemic flu, Steve Allen says that the number of people who would become ill would rise to 15 to 35 percent of the population. With 9,700 people living in Switzerland County, at its worst it could infect 3,395 residents.

He said that making matters worse is that a normal influenza usually runs its course in six to eight weeks; whereas a pandemic virus could return two or three times to reinfect an area.

When the “Spanish Flu” became a pandemic flu in 1918-1919, it lasted just over a year, and came in two waves to infect this country.

The last pandemic was the Hong Kong Flu, which hit in 1968-1969. That pandemic resulted in 40,000 deaths in this country; and one million deaths world wide.

“It wasn’t a major killer, but it was a major illness,” Steve Allen said. “It lasted longer and was more severe than normal.”

Should Bird Flu become a pandemic – and no one is saying that it’s going to – once it gets started world health officials aren’t sure they can curb it.

“It’s going to be awfully hard to stop it,” Steve Allen said. “What we hope to do is to slow it down. Because we’re using 40-year old technology to develop them, it takes six to eight months to develop a vaccine, and by that time it’s too late. Fortunately we have scientists right now who are working on new ways to develop vaccines, which will cut down on the length of time.”

But the one thing that Steve Allen stressed the most during the meeting was that local residents and local health officials have to be prepared should such a pandemic break out in this country. With as much as one-third of the workforce falling ill, is there a plan to keep essential services going? Will schools and governmental offices have to shut down? Will major employers such as Belterra have to close during the pandemic? How will those decisions impact the Switzerland County economy?

“Don’t expect much help at the state or federal level,” Steve Allen said. “Because they are going to be sick, too. What you have to do is prepare locally to help each other.”

WORST CASE SCENARIO

James Graham, who works with Homeland Security and is director of the IT Resource Center at the University of Louisville, spent some time going through an imaginary exercise of what could happen here and around the nation and world should a pandemic hit.

“I tell you the worst case scenario because if I tell you anything less, you won’t pay any attention to me,” James Graham said flatly. “Preparedness is the key, and whether you want to admit it or not, you have to be prepared.”

James Graham said that in his job he made presentations to companies about the pending “Y2K” computer disaster that was supposed to hit with the new century. He said that many people scoffed at the idea of such a disaster, but it was averted because people took the time to prepare and to fix their computers so problems wouldn’t happen.

“Quite frankly, folks,” James Graham said. “That was nothing compared to what could happen if a pandemic hit here.”

He said that the world is overdue for a pandemic outbreak, and again stressed that preparation is key to minimizing the affect on society.

In his fictitious scenario, James Graham saw Bird Flu getting to this country on a plane filled with infected people, who then caught connector flights to other parts of the country – spreading it around to other people.

As the flu spreads, health officials cancel public events where large groups of people gather in an effort to try and slow the disease down. Schools are closed, and many businesses can’t stay open because their employees are too sick to work. Grocery stores are gutted by panicked shoppers, and other services are also brought to a halt.

“What we’re talking about is an infrastructure breakdown,” James Graham said. “There’s no food in the stores, and there’s no employees in the store to keep it open if there was food. If the store was open, the trucking company that brings food from the warehouse may not have enough healthy drivers to get here. If major employers shut down, laid off workers don’t have the money to buy food and medicine and other services.”

James Graham said that the lack of coal shipments to power plants could mean no electricity; and no shipments of chlorine to water plants would mean boiling water to protect against further sickness.

“I know this all sounds far fetched, but you must think about the unthinkable,” James Graham said. “You don’t think things like this could happen? Think about what went on in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. People were stranded without services and without food. With no law enforcement, people vandalized stores and homes. It hasn’t been that long.”

At the conclusion of his presentation, James Graham said that what he discussed was purely a hypothetical situation, but it is designed to make people think about what they would do should a problem arise. He noted that the federal government would see a pandemic outbreak as a security issue, because while millions of people are sick, another country – probably also sick – might try and take advantage of our weakness.

“Here’s the situation,” James Graham said. “You don’t want to panic, but you should be prepared.”

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Switzerland County Public Health Coordinator Rocky Hollingsworth wrapped up the meeting by discussing the different measures that individuals will want to take to prepare themselves for any situation.

He said that although the focus of Tuesday’s meeting was a possible pandemic, residents should always be prepared with extra food in the pantry and other essentials in the event they can’t get to a store, or that the store is closed.

He said that everyone should develop a “family plan”, and that such a plan should include things like:

– Food, water, and medications. It was recommended that homes have about 4-6 weeks of stored food.

– Diapers and formula for babies.

– People should make a plan to check on elderly and homebound neighbors.

– Make sure that there are plenty of pet supplies and food.

– Have school assignments and games available to keep children occupied.

Rocky Hollingsworth also said that getting accurate information is the key, because rumors and other information can cause unnecessary panic. He also said that people with chronic health conditions should consult their doctor to go over “what ifs” before such an incident happens; and that people should also check with their employer about that happens should they be too sick to work for a long period of time; or if they would have to stay home to care for a sick family member.

“If we don’t deal with this on a local level and on a personal level, it’s not going to get done,” Rocky Hollingsworth said.

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People wanting more information on how they can prepare for various emergencies and situations can call Rocky Hollingsworth at 427-9015. He is also available to make presentations to civic and church groups.

– Pat Lanman