State must prepare for pandemic

Bird flu. Mad cow disease. Novovirus. Pandemic influenza ...

Residents of Washington state are being bombarded with information about the potential for a catastrophic health crisis at home, across the state and nation and around the world.

It's not surprising that many people are both confused and concerned.

How serious is the threat, and what can people do to prepare themselves and their family members?

State residents can take some comfort in the fact that Gov. Chris Gregoire and state Department of Health officials are working closely with the federal government and local communities to prepare for a pandemic flu outbreak.

New virus

Most of us are familiar with the strains of influenza that move through the community every winter.

Elderly residents and people whose health is compromised are advised in advance to get a “flu shot” to better protect them from the influenza.

But there's another, more serious, type of flu. It begins in birds or animals, then is passed to humans who do not have the immune system to fight the new virus.

Creating an effective vaccine to stop the outbreak would take months.

In the meantime, millions of people around the world could become sick or die — overwhelming hospitals and other medical care facilities.

Stockpiles of antibiotics could be wiped out. Schools and businesses could be forced to close their doors because of high absentee rates. It's a frightening thought.

Last week, Gregoire signed an agreement with officials representing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They agreed to coordinate state and federal efforts to prepare for a pandemic flu.

The agreement was signed at a statewide health summit focused on a pandemic flu outbreak.

The summit drew 1,000 participants from around the state, testifying to how serious public health and other officials are taking this issue.

It also shows their strong desire to move quickly to have plans in place to counteract any outbreak — bird flu or otherwise.

‘Continuous responsibility'

“Preparing our communities for the possibility of a global flu pandemic is an immense and continuous responsibility and depends on all of us working together,” Gregoire said.

Mary Selecky, secretary of the state Department of Health, echoed the governor's thoughts. “It's impossible to predict when the next pandemic will occur or how hard it will hit, so it's wise to prepare for the worst. We must all work together to achieve that goal — communities, businesses, schools, public health and local, state and federal government.”

She continued: “In one way or another, everyone would be impacted by a massive influenza outbreak. Many of our friends and family would get sick, and sadly, some might even die. Many of our co-workers would be out of the office for weeks.

“Schools, theaters, churches, sporting events — anywhere people gather in groups — would be disrupted. It's not easy to say these things, but these would be the harsh realities of a pandemic.”

The agreement spells out how the federal government will respond to an outbreak and what the state's duties to its citizens are. The state will conduct drills and exercises to see where systems fail and how the state can better respond to a public health emergency.

If we learned one lesson from Hurricane Katrina, it is the importance of advance planning and the need to coordinate disaster responses at all levels of government.

Washington residents can take some solace in the fact that the advance planning for a pandemic flu outbreak is taking place.

Whether that planning pays off in an actual crisis, unfortunately, we'll have to wait and see.