Strategy created to fight avian flu

County is among few in state to have plan for a pandemic

July 05, 2006|By NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON | NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON,SUN REPORTER

Imagine it. Fatalities so great that morgues and funeral homes are overwhelmed. Schools and businesses are shuttered. People are quarantined and public gatherings are canceled. These scenarios could play out if a pandemic flu ever broke out.

And Anne Arundel County health officials say that it is no longer a matter of if, but when.

"At this point, the virus that the world is watching is avian flu. And even if it doesn't become a pandemic, history tells us that we are due for a pandemic," said Frances B. Phillips, Anne Arundel County health officer. "It's a matter of becoming educated and prepared because we're all vulnerable."

To that end, the county's Department of Health has developed a comprehensive pandemic flu plan, making the county one of the few in Maryland that has such a plan. The plan, which is posted on the department's Web site, has received nearly 4,100 hits since mid-May.

Howard County also has a flu plan. Harford and Montgomery counties are following suit.

Maryland developed a pandemic flu plan in 2002.

Phillips stressed that the current county plan is a work in progress.

"This is version 1.0, and we'll continue modifying and adapting it," she said. "It's a good start, though."

Phillips said that the plan would be triggered with any sustained human-to-human transmission of the disease.

The first case of human-to-human transmission of the avian flu virus was confirmed last month after an Indonesian man caught the virus from his 10-year-old son. In that instance, the virus didn't extend beyond the immediate family.

Because Anne Arundel County is home to an international airport and is on the route for migratory birds, the county is particularly vulnerable, Phillips said.

Since June 2005, the state Department of Natural Resources has conducted targeted surveillance of avian flu in wild birds.

"We'll continue to work with local, state and federal agencies to monitor our bird population," said Michael Walsh, a spokesman for the department. There is a protocol in place at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

In Anne Arundel, officials estimated that with a severe pandemic flu outbreak, there could be nearly 4,000 deaths in the county, 17,000 hospitalizations and 178,000 people falling ill.

The county Department of Health, in conjunction with federal health agencies, would work to identify and contain cases and offer antiviral therapy. Quarantining infected people would be an option. The department would also give information to the public and assess hospital capabilities and needs. Should a vaccine become available, the department would carry out mass vaccinations.

"We will be first-responders," Phillips said. "There are an awful lot of other responses that would need to take place for our plan to be effective. Pandemic flu is not just a health problem - it's a societal problem."

This fall, the department will have a symposium for business owners who could be faced with prolonged absenteeism should a pandemic outbreak occur.

There will also be a series of town hall meetings for the general public to learn how to prepare for a pandemic.

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

For more information on the Department of Health's pandemic plan, visit www.aahealth.org.

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