On our own

March 05, 2006

The H5N1 strain of avian flu is spreading across the globe, bird to bird. Two more human fatalities from the flu were reported in eastern China last weekend. A cat died of the disease in Germany. Canada has started to closely monitor airport arrivals from Europe for signs of the lethal flu. And in this country, top federal health officials are going to every state with the message that if a human pandemic takes hold, state and local governments should not look to Washington for much front-line help.

As Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, recently told regional public health professionals at a Maryland flu summit: "Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government will come to the rescue is tragically wrong."

Mr. Leavitt went so far as to advise home-based self-sufficiency: storing prescriptions, food and water so families could weather a pandemic.

However alarming, give federal officials credit for straight talk - in stark contrast to their pre-Katrina assurances to the Gulf Coast. Truth is, there's no way that the federal government could directly manage treating the sick and keeping essential local services operating in the event of multiple outbreaks around the nation. It will be up to every community to take care of its own. That's a deadly serious charge: An American pandemic could lead to as many as 1.9 million U.S. deaths. In Maryland, just a "moderate pandemic" would mean about 10,000 deaths, 44,500 hospitalizations and more than 1 million cases of illness, the state health department predicts.

The good news for Marylanders is that state officials say they have been working on preparations for fighting a flu epidemic since as far back as 1999, insist that the state has made a lot of progress in preparations and recently created a Web site (www.flu.maryland.gov) to keep residents informed. The bad news is that state and local agencies have a good way to go yet, acknowledges Dr. Jean L. Taylor, the state's lead avian flu planner.

Last August, for example, the state health and education departments held their first statewide planning exercise, modeling the impact of a pandemic for Maryland schools, potentially prime sites for disease transmission. A Feb. 10 state report on that exercise concludes that the state's schools don't yet have plans for how to react to a pandemic and state preparations don't sufficiently address school systems' needs.

It is important not to panic. While experts believe that the only question about a global pandemic is not if but when, avian flu has killed fewer than 100 people worldwide as of Friday, none from human-to-human transmission. Researchers are furiously working on a preventive vaccine. But at the same time, states across the country - Maryland included - have been warned: It's time to get very busy preparing to protect ourselves.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.