Pandemic flu outbreak likely to reach U.S., Kent

Allison Remcheck

Experts worry about spread of avian flu in U.S.

Experts believe it’s only a matter of time before the United States is struck by pandemic influenza.

Last century was host to three pandemics, and it’s been 38 years since the last in 1968.

The avian flu outbreaks in Europe and Asia, caused by the H5N1 strain, have brought the possibility of this severe epidemic into the spotlight in the United States.

“I think that when the H5N1 began circulating in Asia, it sort of raised everyone’s awareness of a flu pandemic,” said Kristopher Weiss, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health. “The fact of the matter is, there were three flu pandemics (in the last century), and it’s only a matter of time before there’s another pandemic.”

However, this concern isn’t an imminent threat, said Christopher Cox, press assistant for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, in an e-mail interview.

“As avian flu spreads to more countries, it is obviously of increasing concern,” Cox said. “While some experts believe it is only a matter of time until avian flu reaches the United States, it’s impossible to predict what will occur with its spread.”

Cox said CDC is working with the World Health Organization and the ministries of health in avian flu affected countries to monitor the disease’s progress.

“To be considered a pandemic, a new flu virus must emerge and be easily transmitted from human to human,” Cox said. “Currently the avian flu virus that has infected humans does not pass easily between people.”

Regardless of the imminence of the pandemic, the CDC is working to make sure the proper protocols and precautions are in place during a pandemic, Cox said.

But a flu pandemic isn’t restrictive to only avian flu, Weiss said.

“We don’t know whether this H5N1 will cause a pandemic, or if it will be another strain,” Weiss said. “It could involve a virus we aren’t aware of yet. We do have the opportunity to be the first society in history to be prepared for a case before it comes.”

There is no way to determine exactly when and where a pandemic will strike, Weiss said.

“The world is now working to be prepared,” he said. “When one would come, it’s really hard to say.”

One of the most important things to remember during the threat of a pandemic, Weiss said, is that a pandemic is a global outbreak, but “local planning is paramount.”

Ohio will receive $3,281,387 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to plan for a pandemic. (At www.pandemicflu.gov, under “state and local planning,” the full preparations Ohio is undertaking can be viewed.)

The World Health Organization created a six-phase scale of pandemic alert. The world is currently at phase three where “human infections with a novel influenza virus subtype are occurring, but the virus does not spread efficiently and substantially among humans.”

By getting a flu shot, the public can help to ward off a widespread pandemic during the flu season (October through March), Weiss said.

Although these vaccinations won’t stop a person from getting the particularly virulent pandemic flu strain, it could make the flu less severe, he said.

Vaccinations for the pandemic flu strain cannot be developed until after the strain surfaces – then it takes six to nine months to create a vaccine. Because there have been no cases of pandemic or avian flu in the United States, Weiss said researchers are not creating a vaccine for a pandemic.

To avoid an outbreak of pandemic flu, or to ward off the virus after a pandemic begins, Weiss said people should practice frequent hand washing, cover their coughs and sneezes with a tissue, keep their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth, stay home from work or school if they are sick, eat lots of fruit and vegetables and get plenty of rest and exercise.

If there is an outbreak, Weiss said people should have a stock of a week’s worth of non-perishable food items so they do not have to leave the house if they become ill. People should also keep a flashlight, battery-powered radio and bottled water on hand, just in case power or water services stop.

“As much as 40 percent of the population can be out of work,” Weiss said. “There could be some disruption of services.”

Contact science reporter Allison Remcheck at [email protected]