A threat to the nation’s health is emerging in Asia and the Indian Sub Continent that has potentially devastating implications. Avian Flu (the H5N1 strain of Influenza A) is a fact in many parts of Asia, although to date the avian strain has not combined with human influenza in a sustained manner. If a new strain emerges in humans with the fatality profile of the H5N1 virus, the effect on the world population will be dramatic.
When the combination to create a human to human strain occurs however, and isolated cases may already involve human to human transmission, the conditions precedent to a world wide pandemic will be met. Pandemic flu is defined as “a global outbreak of disease that occurs when a new influenza A virus appears in humans, causes serious illness and then spreads easily from person to person world wide.” (Source: Grattan Woodson, MD, FACP) The original Avian Flu (H5N1) represents a deadly strain for humans with a 50% mortality rate and many experts believe that the pandemic could be equally lethal..
Pandemics occur when existing flu strains mutate and make their way from birds or swine to humans in a new strain for which humans have little no immunity. Historically pandemic influenza has caused widespread damage and death. Influenza pandemics are a regular occurrence in history.
Pandemics in History
To date, only influenza outbreaks account for pandemics and pandemics have occurred throughout history. Over thirty pandemics have happened in recorded history. All influenza pandemics infect many times more people than normal seasonal ( flu caused by viruses that are already among people) influenza outbreaks. In addition major pandemics can have severe adverse effects on the economy and daily life.
Three flu pandemics occurred in the 20th century with differing levels of intensity..
• The 1918 “Spanish Flu” Pandemic- A “major level event” pandemic that accounted for over 50 million deaths world wide.( Originated in Kansas, USA)
• The 1957-58 “Asian Flu” pandemic – A “minor level event” pandemic that accounted for 36,000 deaths in the United States alone
• The Hong Kong Influenza of 1968-69 – A “minor level event “pandemic that accounted for about the same level of deaths as seasonal flu.
The severity of a pandemic depends upon the virus that causes it and the H5N1 Avian flu virus has proven to be particularly fatal to humans. One fact is clear: pandemic influenza will occur again – it is only a question of when. When a virus starts to spread easily and rapidly among humans the conditions for a pandemic have been met.
The 20th century pandemic examples occurred in waves of illness of up to three waves over a 9-12 month period. Often the first wave was not the most severe. During the 1918 Pandemic, over 90% of the deaths of the pandemic occurred during the second wave.
Human Impact on Virginia of a “Medium Level Event”
Northern Virginia is a densely populated, high technology corridor adjacent to Washington, D.C.. Because of the buildup in the Homeland Defense industry as a result of the war on terrorism, the population is large and experiencing rapid growth. Many of the new comers are young professionals with young families.
Based upon historic data a ‘medium level event”, more serious than the Asian Flu Pandemic of 1957-58 but not as severe as the 1918 Pandemic, will result in the following estimates for the State of Virginia:
• 2,700 to 6,300 deaths
• 12,000 to 28,500 hospitalizations
• 575,000 to 1.35 million outpatient visits
• 1.08 million to 2.52 million people becoming sick
Estimates for losses from a “major level event” are significantly higher.
In addition to human damage, the effect on the infrastructure will be considerable. Having a large number of ill people will be very destructive to the infrastructure. A major pandemic will likely disrupt essential public services and supplies and create temporary breakdowns in food delivery, electric and water utility service and possible public order in major urban centers. These critical industries are highly dependent on raw materials supplied by vendors and key employees with the expertise to maintain operations.
An Integrated Economy
The United Sates enjoys the benefits of a highly integrated economy with highly efficient delivery of goods and services and rapid communications. This level of integration allows for more efficient management of material inventories but would break down rapidly in the event of dislocation in any part of the chain. Basic industries like electrical and water utilities would soon cease to function. Disruption of channels of distribution for the food industry would result in rapid and near total shortages of food and water.
What Can Be Done to Prevent a Pandemic?
Flu Shots and the Pandemic
Standard flu shots for seasonal (normal) flu will not guard against a new pandemic strain of the flu virus because each new flu mutations have different DNA characteristics. For new strains it takes many months to develop and distribute a vaccine and during this time the new strain will most like have run its course.
Presently, the only available anti-viral antibiotic effective against the H5N1 strain of influenza is Tamiflu® (oseltamivir) . This drug is in short supply, requires a doctor’s prescription and is not manufactured in the United States. Other anti viral antibiotics are in the development stage but are not proven ready for production.
What Can Be Done to Prepare for a Pandemic? – Prepare Now!!
Preparing now can limit the spread and effects of pandemic influenza. A pandemic would touch every aspect of society, so every part of society needs to prepare. Essential services may be disrupted, food and water supplies may be limited and medical care for those with chronic illnesses may be suspended..
Although most people will have little or no immunity to pandemic influenza, in the event of a flu pandemic proper planning and preparation will help mitigate the damage. Planning has already begun at the international, federal, state, local, community and individual business levels but experts agree that all planning must start at the family level.
The family will serve as the core of wellness and remedial care since hospitals and other health care provides will become quickly overrun with patients if a major level pandemic occurs.
As a basic unit of society, the family can provide first line care and prepare a preventative survival plan that can be rapidly implemented. These plans include improvement of basic hygiene, assembly of food, water and medical supplies and protocols for avoiding infection. Management of the protection of the family unit, with proper planning, can significantly reduce the impact of a pandemic.
Federal, state and local internet sites are the best source to help develop workable and effective Family Survival Plans. The State of Virginia and local counties in Northern Virginia like Fairfax County have initiated plans and planning out reach that will help mitigate the effects of a pandemic. Like all disaster plans, there is nominal cost associated with proper planning.
There are two parts of planning: resource planning and home treatment planning. Resource planning involves the stock piling of food, water, regular prescription and non prescription drugs and strategies for home care of infected individuals. Home treatment planning involves specific actions to treat infected individuals.
A key aspect of home treatment is treating dehydration.
Planning for the Treatment of Dehydration
As part of an overall pandemic disaster survival plan, the role of hydration cannot be overemphasized. The human body can survive for weeks without food but only days without water.
Preventing dehydration ranks highest of all treatments for influenza and many experts feel that preventing dehydration in flu victims will save more lives than all other treatments combined. (Source: Preparing for the Coming Influenza Pandemic by Grattan Woodson, MD, FACP)
Most family survival plans provide for a sufficient supply of drinking water to last for an extended period in the event that normal drinking water supply is disrupted. Pure water is required for both drinking and cooking. Many estimates call for 1 gallon per person per day for as long as the normal supply is disrupted.(At least two weeks and possibly more).
A good source of bottled water is required since normal supplies will be disrupted.
How to Choose a Water Supplier:
A family pandemic disaster plan needs to provide for a consistent source of pure drinking water. Tap and well water are unreliable sources during a pandemic and bottled water is considered the best source by many experts.
Purified water, because all minerals and contaminants have been removed, is the purest water and has the longest shelf life of any bottled water. Extended shelf life is important if the pandemic is extended by subsequent waves of infection.
Many believe that distilled/filtered/oxygenated water is the purest, best tasting water with the longest shelf life.
Pick a supplier with local manufacturing in the Northern Virginia area to avoid home delivery disruption. In the event that a pandemic disrupts channels of distribution, avoid bottled water suppliers who source their product from remote springs with long supply lines.
Although no one can predict with certainty the timing and virus strain of the next pandemic, the risk of an influenza pandemic is serious. Proper planning will serve to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
Like all disaster planning, a small amount of serious planning is cost effective and good insurance to maintain good health. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.