Lots of folks, from political leaders, to public health officials, to people on the street, are asking good questions about pandemic flu. We are even beginning to get a sense of the administration’s plans for addressing the challenges posed by pandemic flu as reported on in this article published in yesterday’s Washington Post .
How frightened should we be? How can we prepare? Are we creating unnecessary panic?
Pandemic flu happens periodically and there is a real possibility that avian flu will cross the animal / human barrier. But we shouldn't panic. We should be building our public health, health care and research infrastructure systematically and seriously. This we need to do not just in response to avian flu, but to deal with the constant threat of new and evolving diseases in a global community.
A few facts about pandemic flu
Pandemics occur when new subtypes of a virus emerge that have not circulated in humans. These are rare, but did happen in 1918, 1957, and 1968.
The most notable threat now is avian influenza, a collection of viruses that primarily infect birds. In the mid to late 90s, a form developed within bird flocks and began causing increasingly severe disease the strain is called H5N1.
It has been monitored for several years by health experts, concerned that it might jump from animals to humans. If it did, and if it spread as easily as the usual flu in humans, it could cause a pandemic, because practically no one would be immune to it. This strain has infected a small number of people, but a large number of them have died a case fatality rate of about 50 percent.
A few weeks ago senior federal officials, including HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, came to North Carolina to meet with Governor Easley and key state leaders to focus their own and the public's attention on this issue. I was privileged to be a part of this meeting.
I believe the preparation we are making in our state is right on target but we need lots of help and the engagement and support of the public.
At UNC Health Care, we are making plans for pandemic flu, including how we will deal with large numbers of patients, and how we will handle the illness among our own workforce.
This is similar to how we prepared for and dealt with SARS a few years ago. We learned a lot from that experience especially the value of preparation.
Each community has to prepare, and we at UNC are doing our part. With our dedicated infectious disease experts, engaged management staff and informed workforce, I believe we are going to be ready for what comes whether it is pandemic flu or another challenge.