Scientists say pandemic is certain

Expert panel tells emergency managers it's just a matter of when the avian flu will spark a pandemic.

BY STEPHANIE BACKUS | WASHINGTON, DC | March 7, 2009



"When you tell people to listen to warnings, they don't listen. . .There are warning labels on everything. We've heard the warnings over and over and over again, that we've become deaf to them. Ignoring the warning has become an art."

—P.J. Havice-Cover, Colorado


It was 1999 and the world was buzzing with talk of Y2K. Banks were unsure if their computers would crash at midnight on New Years Eve or if they would switch over like nothing happened. People were stockpiling emergency items with fear the world would go back to prehistoric times. Then at midnight on December 31, the world paused, and took a collective sigh of relief. There were few glitches and many people started laughing at everyone who said it was going to be a big deal -- at everyone who made emergency preparations for the event.

Now, scroll forward 10 years, and part of the world is once again preparing for a different kind of disaster -- a pandemic. A pandemic is a disease that spreads across a major geographical region including an entire country or countries.

Many scientists are now sure that a version of H5N1, or the avian flu, will cause a pandemic in the future. While speaking to health officials at the National Emergency Management Summit Thursday, several experts said the issue was no longer an "if" issue, it was now "when." Without knowing when a pandemic will hit, many hospitals and the government are doing what they can to try to prepare the U.S. for the event.

"In 2005, then President George Bush announced a national strategy for pandemic influenza," said Dr. Robin Robinson, senior project officer of the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "It was a pandemic influenza implementation plan."

Robinson has been partly responsible for making sure the U.S. is ready in such an event. He said the plan initially had several parts, including the ability to make an influenza vaccine available for 20 million people who are at high risk for getting the H5N1 flu or are essential in a time of national emergency.

"We also wanted to make sure we could have everyone in the U.S. vaccinated within six months of the pandemic declaration," Robinson said.

Initially the plan was to have the ability to do that by 2011. Robinson said the government has the capability today to get everyone vaccinated in six months. By 2011, he said that time frame could be down to a month. According to Robinson, the government looked long and hard for enough vaccine to accomplish this goal.

"We actually found on the black market a season of influenza vaccine priced between $400 and $600," he said, noting the price of a normal vaccine is less than $20. "Imagine when everyone is scared and will want something."

Robinson said the government has also prepared to be able to provide antiviral drugs to 25 percent of the population, once the pandemic hits.

"We also wanted to provide drug stockpiles for strategic limited containment at the onset of the pandemic," he said.

All the preparations could wear some down, though, according to P.J. Havice-Cover, a mental health professional and program coordinator for the state of Colorado.

"With a flash bang event like the Oklahoma City bombings or 9/11, we spend a lot of energy planning," said Havice-Cover. "But this is a slow burn of a public health event because you have a protracted response that lasts a whole lot longer. It wears people down."

Havice-Cover said we are over-warned in our lives and that causes a numbness to warnings for major events like a pandemic.

"When you tell people to listen to warnings, they don't listen," she said. "There are warning labels on everything. We've heard the warnings over and over and over again, that we've become deaf to them. Ignoring the warning has become an art."

Havice-Cover said once the pandemic comes, people will likely shrug their shoulders when they are told to prepare for it, until there is nothing left with which to prepare. She said once store shelves are empty or the pandemic hits close to home, people will start listening.

"There is so much information coming at us, we don't know the seriousness of an event. You are going to get no action from the public when the pandemic hits," she said. "It's the primal shrug -- the attitude of 'so what,' until we get to the tipping point and they realize what it means. It's when they go to the ER and they can't get in, or they go to a mobile triage site and they are told to go home. That is when they'll start to realize."

Havice-Cover stressed the importance of preparing mentally for a pandemic. She said people will go through several stages, including depression and anger.

"Grief and loss is a certainty in planning for the pandemic," she said. "You can respect and normalize people's grieving processes by giving them updates on progress. Don't just ignore the losses. If you're in a position to inform the public, talk about it. Community memorial services are very important."

She said it was also important to be prepared to be quarantined for months at a time. She said stockpiling food was important, but there was another aspect to that preparation.

"It's important to be prepared to entertain children for long periods of time. We've become a society that works, so some may need that preparation. We also need to be teaching kids how to cover your cough and the importance of handwashing as well as how long and the best way to wash hands," she said.

Quarantine could be an important part of the fight against a pandemic.

"When you're talking to people, voice your appreciation for those in quarantine. Talk about how they're hometown heroes and doing what they need to be doing in order to protect the community," said Havice-Cover.

According to Havice-Cover, eventually the pandemic will subside, but it is important not to expect life to begin quickly again.

"Once the community is allowed to return to normal activities, some people are going to do that, but some are going to be very cautious. These are both very normal responses."

But Havice-Cover was confident people would get through the pandemic.

"Resillience and change is a given; challenges help us grow."


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