May 14, 2007
UI Advice: Everyone Should Plan For Pandemic Flu
Administrators at the University of Iowa are planning for a response should large numbers of Iowans become ill in a flu pandemic, and they are encouraging all citizens to make their own plans.
Christopher Atchison, associate dean of the UI College of Public Health and chair of the UI's Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Task Force, says that there's great value in taking a few minutes now to think about what people should do if their regular routines were disrupted.
According to federal officials, a pandemic would occur when a new strain of influenza virus emerges to which there is no pre-existing immunity, and it can spread efficiently among individuals. There is no pandemic now, but authorities are watching closely a strain of flu virus called H5N1, often called "bird flu," which has emerged in Asia. Scientists agree that this virus holds the potential to mutate in such a way as to cause a pandemic.
"It's important for every individual and family to think about what they would do in the event that their lives were upended by a catastrophic event such as a pandemic," Atchison says. "For example, early on in a pandemic event, the health protection measure that may be most effective is 'social distancing,' meaning that people would be required to stay far away from each other. If schools and many businesses were closed and children were sent home for a week or more, what would you do?"
The time to think about these possibilities is now, Atchison says, "not the day you get the phone call from the school that the kids are coming home and the boss sends you home."
To help individuals and families plan for a pandemic event, the federal government has created a useful web site at http://www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/individual/index.html.
"Most authorities agree that it's not a matter of whether another pandemic will occur, but when," Atchison says.
Appointed in January 2006 by Michael Hogan, UI executive vice president and provost, the task force created a plan that identifies the steps to be taken leading up to and following an influenza pandemic. Working with federal, state, and local authorities, the task force is coordinating the planning among the university's many units, as well as with outside agencies.
"It takes time to work out even the most basic details for the crisis response of an institution involving tens of thousands of students, staff, faculty, contractors, patients and their families," Atchison says. "In addition, with its health care functions, the university has unique and critical responsibilities that must continue." The resulting basic plan is hundreds of pages and is still in development. For more information about the UI plan, see http://www.uiowa.edu/~crisis/pandemic/index.html.
Last month, using the plan as a guideline, the task force ran its first tabletop exercise, a four-hour simulation of a flu pandemic outbreak on campus.
"We learned a surprising amount from those four hours," Atchison says. "We were in fairly good shape to respond with some flexibility, but we still have a way to go." The task force plans at least two more tabletop exercises to help it hone its plan. In the meantime, all units on campus are being encouraged to create their own plans and coordinate them with the task force.
"We're putting a lot of effort into thinking about the unthinkable," Atchison says. "And it's not like planning for Y2K. That event had a clear deadline. We don't know when this thing is going to happen. We will always be planning for it, probably even after it occurs."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500