Warning raised of possible killer pandemic flu crisis

The Mirror

King County government, health and business leaders are trying to prepare for a potentially deadly pandemic flu that could strike here –– or not.

Nobody’s crying wolf, they say.

“The threat is real and growing, and the potential for human and social disruption is severe,” said County Executive Ron Sims, one of the officials urging advance planning and awareness.

A pandemic flu is a new, life-threatening influenza virus that’s different from typical, seasonal flu. Local and national health authorities warn that people would have no or little natural resistance to a new strain, there is no vaccine for it, and developing a vaccine would take at least six months after a sizable outbreak.

By then, people could be dead. In King County alone, an estimated 1.2 million people could become infected and 3,000 could die. Nationally, an influenza pandemic could infect up to 200 million people and kill 100,000 to 200,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A potential pandemic has been identified in Asia as avian, or bird, flu. The outbreak has been mainly among poultry. Human infections and deaths have occurred, although not at the level of a pandemic, which is when such a flu spreads quickly among people.

If and when that happens here, a pandemic could last for weeks or months, disrupting public services (healthcare, law enforcement, fire protection, emergency medical responses, communications, transportation and utilities) and businesses as workers fall ill.

Representatives of more than 50 businesses, fire and police departments and schools attended a county-sponsored forum Oct. 3 at Safeco Field in Seattle to hear about the potential health, social and economic impacts of a pandemic and the ways they can prepare for it.

“Pandemic flu requires a different preparedness strategy,” said Dorothy Teeter, interim director of the Seattle-King County Public Health Department. “The tremendous impact on human health will change how everyone will do business when a pandemic flu comes.”

County Councilwoman Jane Hague said establishing procedures now for containing the infection and minimizing deaths is especially important for protecting doctors and nurses who would be caring for the sick.

Officials say more than 25 percent of all workers could be forced off their jobs by a pandemic flu, either because they’d have it or must care for sick relatives or mourn dead ones. The economic impact could be extreme, officials said.

“Our region’s long-term economic vitality depends on us taking all reasonable precautions to mitigate the effects of any influenza pandemic. Business must partner with government,” said John Powers, president of enterpriseSeattle, a jobs-creation group formerly called the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County.

Avian flu is a more distant threat here than the usual flu season that’s underway, said Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, director of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation Emerging Infections Network and a medicine and health professor at the University of Washington.

“At this point, it’s not very contagious,” she said.

Kimball noted, however, that it could start spreading easily and widely.

Hospitals are part of the planning for such an event. St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way is part of a group led by the Health Department that is reviewing communication links and procedures between hospitals and the department.

“Important work is underway” to be ready in case “the unthinkable” occurs in King County, said Gale Robinette, a spokesman for St. Francis.

“In order to contain the infection rates and the loss of lives, our communication and action plans must be clearly established and coordinated,” said Hague.

The County Council voted Monday to formally urge Congress to provide federal funding for a drill testing King County’s preparedness for an avian pandemic flu outbreak. Hague noted the county is an “international gateway” with ties to Asia, making it a possible entry point for avian flu.

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