IT LOOKS, for all the world, like one of those horrible disaster dramas on prime-time television; a global avian flu epidemic infecting up to 40% of the world’s population. Utilities failing. Emergency services, hospitals and doctors swamped. Shortages of food and supplies because agriculture, manufacturing, shipping and retail sectors don’t have enough healthy workers to meet demand. It’s a terrifying mental image, but it’s not unrealistic. It’s happened in the U.S. before.
During the autumn of 1918, near the end of the First World War, the Spanish flu took three weeks to spread into every community across the United States. Only three weeks during an era without global commercial air travel or interstate highways. More than 25% of the U.S. population became infected, more than 650,000 Americans died. Globally, the Spanish flu pandemic killed more people (50 million) than were killed during four years of World War I (16 million).
The World Health Organization (WHO) anticipates that the H5N1 strain of avian (bird) flu, not currently capable of passing from human-to-human, will infect someone already ill with another flu strain and evolve into something highly contagious to humans. The WHO, based on current human cases of H5N1 avian flu, caught from bird/human contact, expects the pandemic to begin in Asia and spread rapidly world-wide.
Civista pandemic drill volunteers waiting for triage.
According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “Since 2003, a growing number of human H5N1 cases have been reported in Asia, Europe, and Africa. More than half of the people infected with the H5N1 virus have died. Most of these cases are all believed to have been caused by exposure to infected poultry. There has been no sustained human-to-human transmission of the disease, but the concern is that H5N1 will evolve into a virus capable of human-to-human transmission.”
The Charles County Health Department (CCHD), in cooperation with Civista Medical Center and county government also recently conducted an avian flu pandemic drill. County medical personnel, emergency services, health department staff and volunteers spent 24 hours enacting plans to deal with a pandemic. Part of the drill included educating local media.
Bill Leebel, CCHD public information officer, suggests that natural disaster makes a good comparison for the flu pandemic. To his understanding society can no more stop a pandemic from occurring than we could prevent a hurricane from hitting a coastline or steer a tornado through unpopulated areas of the Midwest.
“History tells us influenza pandemics are inevitable. Experts tell us the world is overdue for a pandemic,” said Governor Martin O’Malley in a statement announcing Maryland’s recent state level pandemic flu drill.
Preparing for the Inevitable
An effective vaccine against avian flu can’t be developed until scientists know what human flu strain H5N1 merges with.