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Responders urge flu awareness

As the H1N1 flu reports alarm public, disaster organizations urge an educated response


"We want to make sure that this isn't rallied into some sort of frenzy."

—Scott Sundberg, Mennonite Disaster Service

With the first confirmed death from H1N1 flu in the United States on Wednesday, health officials and disaster responders are preparing for the worst.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) say the H1N1 flu is a combination of pig, human and bird viruses. Swine flu is a virus that usually causes pigs to catch the flu -- but is now passing from human to human.

When a 22-month-old Mexican boy died in a Houston hospital Wednesday, the CDC reported “a pattern of more severe illness associated with the virus may be emerging in the United States.”

Throughout the country, hospitals are stocking up on masks and flu vaccinations, local officials are monitoring suspicious cases and relief organizations are amassing information.

“We’re not experts on swine flu. We’re just trying to facilitate connections with the resources that are reliable and authoritative,” said Randy Ackley, Coordinator for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA).

PDA’s website relates the latest news from the CDC and the WHO. But the numbers are continually changing. “Things are moving so fast that even those resources we’re getting our information from are struggling to keep up.”

Similar disaster response organizations are busy connecting local congregations and religious networks to the information at hand.

“We’re making sure congregations serve as a resource for people as they look to prepare for a possible pandemic,” said Scott Sundberg, Director of Communications for the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

Spreading awareness not only keeps congregations informed, but also ensures that local churches become additional information centers for communities. “We are in close conversation with congregations so that churches can help their community know what they can do to stay prepared,” Sundberg said.

Most response organizations agree that the best use of their energies at this time is to stay informed.

“We’ve really got to sit tight and see what happens over the next few weeks,” said the Rev. Kevin A. Massey of Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR). “We need to follow the news as closely as we can, so that we can provide accurate information and develop precautionary measures that are appropriate for the situation.”

“No one is trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to connect congregations to the most up-to-date information,” Ackley added.

Abigail Nelson, Senior Vice President for Programs at Episcopal Relief & Development said that if swine flu becomes a prevalent health issue, relief organizations are ready to act. “Swine flu is currently being handled by the health authorities,” said Nelson in a press release on Monday.

“We are, however, prepared to respond through our church networks should we be needed.”

“We need to follow directions from the government and the World Health Organization,” advised Pamela Burdine, Constituency Relations Associate for PDS. According to the CDC, the best way to avoid contracting the swine flu is to “stay in good general health.”

Sundberg said MDS is advising congregants to “stick to the basics” in terms of healthy living. “Right now, all people need to do is focus on simple health practices,” Sundberg said. “Just wash your hands regularly and make sure to cover coughs and sneezes.”

“We don’t know whether or not this particular outbreak is going to turn out to be a pandemic but it’s always a good occasion to stress individual and family health preparedness,” Massey added. “We’re advising everyone to follow the fundamentals: good hygiene, plenty of sleep, and healthy eating.”

Healthy eating still includes pork. According to the CDC, you cannot get H1N1 flu from eating pork or pork products.

The overwhelming media attention surrounding H1N1 flu is almost as big of a concern as the illness itself.

Sundberg said MDS is making sure to relate only the important and accurate information available. “We don't want to be privy to anything that could exacerbate the situation and bring people into a spirit of fear,” Sundberg said.

“We want to make sure that this isn't rallied into some sort of frenzy.” Sundberg explained that the typical flu is equal if not greater cause for concern.

According to the CDC, more than 200,000 are hospitalized for the typical flu in the U.S. every year. About 36,000 people die from flu-related illnesses.

“In the grand scheme of things, the swine flu is a pretty minor event,” Sundberg said. “But it’s garnering all this attention because it’s so unknown.”

Massey said LDR is trying to keep people informed without causing alarm. “We’re trying to be cautious to report only accurate information and not overstate or hype the situation,” Massey said. “It is not a time to panic.” The best way to prepare for any pandemic is to "make a plan, make a kit and stay informed," he said.

“We’re not paranoid about it,” Sundberg agreed. “We're just being cautious and wary.”

Julia Menzo of LDR said people should be less concerned about the severity of swine flu, and more concerned on how quickly the virus might spread. “This is a good time for congregations to think about how to minister in the face of situations that might arise out of any pandemic,” she said.

In a bulletin sent to the Southeastern Pennsylvania affiliate of LDR, Menzo advised congregants to not only share the peace, but “share the Purell” as well.

Massey said that the thought of a H1N1 flu pandemic is challenging religious relief organizations to think creatively about the response work.

“We have to start thinking about how we could continue to provide people spiritual support even if we weren’t able to physically gather,” Massey said. “We’re fearful that we’ll be told that congregations will have to stop meeting in order to limit the spread of infection,” Ackley said.

“So we need to think about how congregations can worship by other technological means,” Burdine added.

Massey encourages congregations to start identifying forms of electronic communication to keep people connected. “Even Twitter or Facebook these tools will help congregations stay connected spiritually and emotionally with each other,” Massey said.

A church could meet online, Massey suggested. And while congregants would miss meeting in person, the church would remain connected. “I think in times like that, we would need that support more than ever,” Massey said.

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Related Links:

• Dr. Richard M. Krieg, president of the Horizon Foundation in Columbia, MD, and a former Chicago public health official discusses the potential of the H1N1 (swine) flu and how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have handled it.: DNN Radio: Swine Flu and the CDC

• While disaster response organizations monitor news and plan for a potential flu pandemic, the Rev. Kevin Massey, director of Lutheran Disaster Response, says faith leaders should reach out to local public health officials and share appropriately.: DNN Radio: How Faith Leaders Can Respond to the Flu

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