Friday, November 24, 2006

Community measures key in the event of a flu pandemic, experts say

Communities can play an important role in keeping their residents safe in the event of a flu pandemic, according to a panel of experts who spoke at APHA’s 134th Annual Meeting in November.

While many people are counting on vaccines or drug treatments to help protect their health in the event of a flu pandemic, such supplies may not be readily available, panel presenters said. During a flu pandemic, it could take up to six months for enough vaccines and medications to be available for every person, according to David Heyman, director and senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Homeland Security Program, which means it is important to know about other ways to work to protect communities.

Protecting community residents requires cooperation, preparation and communication, according to panel presenter Donna L. Richter, EdD, FAAHB, dean of the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. In the end, all emergencies are local, so it is the local response that matters the most, she said. For pandemic planning to truly work, leaders must involve everyone, including individuals, families and communities.

Keeping the public up to date with information during an emergency can help reduce worry and encourage everyone to accept measures needed to control the flu, such as school closings or possible quarantines, said Robert J. Levine, MD, co-director of Interdisciplinary Bioethics Center at Yale University.

Education campaigns before and during an emergency are key, as they remind people to take simple measures, such as frequent handwashing or avoiding public places. Such measures will help people protect themselves and others, according to Heyman, who is the author of a 2005 report detailing ways to safeguard the public during disease outbreaks.

It is especially important to make sure that all people have equal access to services and help during a pandemic, Levine stressed. In addition to doctors and health workers, police, social workers and others can work together to help sick people stay at home so they don’t infect others. Helping people get the services they need, whether it be providing medical care or just going to get groceries, is also vital.

Communities must prepare now, as diseases that occur on the other side of the world can quickly make their way to the United States, Richter emphasized.

"For the flu, the world is one interconnected community that has no boundaries," Richter said.

Photo: Image of David Heyman speaking during a session at APHA's 134th Annual Meeting in Boston this November (photo credit: EZ Event Photography)

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