Friday, January 26, 2007

Ready, set, go: Preparing for the worst

I might know the most prepared person on the planet. He's the consummate Boy Scout, and boy, he is ready for just about anything.

I'm not going to use his real name because if something horrible does happen — like a natural or manmade disaster or pandemic flu — we'd all show up on his doorstep asking for a spare water filter and some beef jerky. So, as we gather around the proverbial campfire — or what modern people refer to as the blogosphere — let me tell you about my friend Scout.

Scout is not only prepared to care for himself in an emergency, but also for his family of six — an impressive feat. In his house, Scout has a year's worth of food; 55 gallons of water; a barrel to collect rain water; an iodine kit; canned food, pasta, rice, wheat and a can opener; soap; toothpaste; four months worth of propane; matches, candles and batteries; and, of course, board games. Putting this all together was like getting ready to go camping for a year, Scout told me, saying that he prepared under the assumption that no one would be coming to save him and his family if the worst happened. (Any Jericho-watchers in our reading audience?)

Now, I know what you're thinking: How can I store an entire year's worth of food in my basement and still have space for my collection of mint-condition 1977 Star Wars memorabilia? Well, we can't all be like Scout. In terms of preparedness, he's a Jedi and the rest of us are Ewoks living in very unstable grass huts. But we can make a commitment to get organized and get prepared. Even if it means starting with very small steps.

First, contact your local emergency management office or Red Cross and find out what kind of disasters could happen where you live, how to prepare for each disaster and how to receive special assistance for members of your family who are elderly or disabled. Second, sit down with your family and loved ones and talk about why it's important to be prepared. Then, go through an emergency checklist and put together a preparedness kit.

Here are just a few examples of what the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends:
* One gallon of water per person per day for at least three days
* At least a three-day supply of nonperishable food
* A battery-powered or hand-crank radio
* Flashlight and extra batteries
* First aid kit
* Whistle to signal for help
* Dust masks to help filter contaminated air
* Local maps

For more detailed instructions and guidelines on how to put together an emergency preparedness kit, view our fact sheet that outlines how to prepare for all-hazards. For additional resources, visit or Additional resources will be available during this year’s National Public Health Week, April 2-8 2007, where our campaign will focus on "Preparedness and Public Health Threats: Addressing the Unique Needs of the Nation's Vulnerable Populations."

And don't forget these words from my friend Scout: It's better to be safe than sorry.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Chan: Bird flu deaths set new record in 2006

The new director-general of the World Health Organization is warning countries not to become complacent about avian flu, noting that deaths from the disease reached a new one-year high in 2006.

Speaking on the opening day of the WHO Executive Board meeting in Geneva on Monday, Margaret Chan, MD, MPH, reported that 267 cases of H5N1 avian flu have been diagnosed in humans since 2003, 161 of which were fatal. The 2006 death toll was greater than in all previous years combined — leading to a 70 percent case fatality rate for that year.

While the world has become accustomed to hearing about avian flu, the virus "has lost none of its virulence," Chan said. As almost no country that has had avian flu outbreaks in its poultry flocks has successfully eliminated the virus, the world is "years away" from controlling avian flu in the agricultural sector, Chan predicted.

"Countries have made heroic efforts, yet the virus stays put or comes back, again and again," she said. "As long as the virus continues to circulate in birds, the threat of a pandemic will persist."

Photo Credit: World Health Organization

Friday, January 19, 2007

Antivirals vs. vaccines: Which one is the right answer in the fight against a flu pandemic?

As health officials around the world discuss the continuing struggle to contain cases of bird flu, both antiviral drugs and vaccines are mentioned as ways to fight the disease. So what's the difference, and which one is the best solution?

The main difference between the two is that antiviral agents are drugs used to treat people or animals once they've become sick, while vaccines are used to prevent diseases in those who are still healthy.

Right now, there are four antiviral drugs available to fight the seasonal flu. Of these, two have been shown to fight infections with H5N1, the bird flu virus that is infecting some birds and people around the world. In the event of a pandemic — which is essentially a widespread outbreak of infectious disease, possibly on a global scale — antivirals may be used to treat sick people.

Antiviral agents can in some cases shorten the time sick people are unwell, but there are a lot of limitations to these drugs: They must be taken within two days of becoming sick, and they don’t work for everyone. Antivirals are not available over-the-counter and must be prescribed by a doctor, so it may be too late to use them if you delay going to the doctor or hospital once you are sick.

Vaccines on the other hand, are of no use once people are already sick. To understand how a vaccine works, we must first understand how our bodies defend themselves against disease. Let's say the body is the defensive lineup of a football team, and the opposing team is what makes us sick. The end zone, which is the defense's job to protect, is our health. When exposed to a new play from the rival team, the defense is unprepared, and the opposing team is able to break through. If the team is strong enough to reach the end zone, we become infected and begin to feel sick. However, once exposed to this new play, our defenders remember it. When the same play is used again, the defense is able to recognize it earlier and is more prepared to block it from advancing.

A vaccine uses this idea of a "memory" to prepare our bodies for attack. A vaccine is made from a weaker form of the opposing team, such as its third string or benchwarmers. This weaker team is still able to penetrate our defense, but never reaches the end zone to make us sick. This minor exposure to the opposing team’s play still allows us to remember it so we are prepared to fight when the stronger first string tries to use it again.

And as we've mentioned before, there is no vaccine available yet against the H5N1 bird flu. There are a lot of fake bird flu vaccines being advertised, but none of them are legitimate. If you aren't sure what you need to prepare for bird flu or a flu pandemic, ask your doctor or health care professional for advice.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Schools are closed. Now what?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 million U.S. households (just over 25 percent) have two parents with children under 18. There are also 12 million single-parent households with children under age 18. So if schools close, tens of millions of kids in about 40 million U.S. households will be home -- some supervised, some not.

Such a situation may not be a problem for families with older children, but what about working parents of a 7-year-old? Many parents won't be able to work from home or have enough leave built up to stay home for a few weeks or months. This is especially problematic for single-parent households.

If you're a parent of school-aged children, what should you do to prepare? Here are some helpful tips if your child's school is closed:

* Determine whether or not your children are old enough to stay home by themselves for extended periods.
* Discuss with your employer whether or not you will be able to work from home, or at least be able to take some time off to care for your child in the event of a pandemic.
* If you can't get off work, ask a family member or neighbor if they will be able to watch them. This isn’t ideal, but at least they won't be interacting with dozens of kids.
* Ask the school or parent-teacher group if they have a pandemic flu or emergency closure plan and if classes will be offered on TV, radio or online.
* Stock up on books, games and fun activities that kids and teens can do at home, which will help before they become stir crazy. Or you do.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Poll: Get Ready for Flu readers receive their flu vaccinations

A big thanks goes out to everyone who took part in our first-ever flu vaccination poll. Almost 400 people took our blog poll during December, with the vast majority of people -- 79 percent -- reporting that they have received their seasonal flu shot.

We'd like to claim credit for so many people going out and getting vaccinated, but it's really you, our readers, who deserve the accolades. So kudos on getting your shots! You took an important step toward protecting your health, the health of your family and ultimately, your community. Give yourself a round of applause!

As for you other 21 percent, here is some food for thought: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity increased in the United States in late December. Other than Vermont, every state that submitted surveillance data to CDC reported some seasonal flu activity, with Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama reporting widespread flu cases. Chances are seasonal flu is out there in your community right now. Even more reason why you still should get your flu vaccination.

Haven't taken our poll yet? You can do so now by visiting the top right corner of this blog.

Friday, January 05, 2007

School closures during a pandemic: Distancing makes a difference

School's out for...three months? Unlike Alice Cooper's 1970s rock anthem, summer may not be the only time schools close. To prevent the spread of infections during a flu pandemic, they may very well have to shut down in the middle of the school year.

Scientists believe that one of the main ways to minimize the number of people getting sick and dying during a flu pandemic is by limiting our interactions. Because classrooms are prime environments in which kids can catch the flu and other illnesses, it's important to focus on schools. A key reason is shared physical space: In elementary school, the average distance between children is just under 4 feet. They're sitting at desks or playing in gym class and touching the same supplies, doorknobs and faucets. After catching the flu from each other, they then bring it home to their families.

That's why the federal government recommends that schools close and that kids and teens stay home during the early stages of a flu pandemic. Will that really make a difference? Well, the average distance between people in a typical U.S. home is roughly 16 feet, quadruple the distance between people in schools. Closing schools would also reduce the amount of time kids interact with each other, which means the situation would be much better than if we continued reading, writing and arithmetic as usual.

Photo credit: Eyewire