PINELLAS COUNTY – Health officials say the public needs to prepare for an influenza pandemic that they know is coming sometime in the future.
“We’re doing our best not to panic people,” Gayle Guidash with the Pinellas County Department of Health’s public health preparedness department, told the Board of County Commissioner’s in April. “But, people need to be prepared.”
Guidash is working with Gary Vickers, director of the county’s emergency management department, on a county plan and
preparedness measures. Communication to the public of the need to prepare and self-protection is a key component in the plan
“Once it (pandemic influenza) takes hold, there will be little or no help from the outside,” Guidash said.
Most people are aware of H5N1 Avian Influenza – a virus that affects wild birds, chickens and humans that come into direct contact with the blood or feces of an infected bird.
Thus far, no documented evidence exists of the avian flu spreading from person to person. However, influenza viruses are quick to mutate, and health officials are closely monitoring H5N1.
“Pandemic influenza is different from seasonal influenza because it occurs when a new strain of influenza emerges that can be transmitted easily from person to person and for which people have no immunity,” according to the federal Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, released May 3. “Unlike seasonal influenza, which typically affects the frail and sick, pandemic influenza could present as much risk to the young and healthy.”
On Dec. 30, 2005, President George Bush signed the Pandemic Influenza Act, 2006. The Act included $3.8 billion for pandemic influenza preparedness.
Guidash said the state of Florida received a little more than $4 million in federal funding. Pinellas County’s share was not quite $111,000.
The state’s money has gone in part to increasing surveillance in the form of sentinel physicians and training of medical workers to be vigilant for signs of the onset of an influenza pandemic.
“There’s a short window from the time it’s detected because it’s quick to transmit,” Guidash said. “It takes six to nine months to make a vaccine and there won’t be enough antiviral medications to go around.”
She said the best plan people could make for their own survivability is much the same as the measures taken during hurricane season.
People should keep a survival kit stocked with food, water, medicines – everything they need to survive on their own, she said.
“We will isolate the sick and quarantine the well to limit personal interaction,” Guidash said. “People will be asked to self-quarantine.”
People should stay as healthy as possible and practice good habits, such as washing their hands often, covering their mouth and nose with a tissue when they sneeze or cough, using paper towels on door knobs, not touching mouth, nose and eyes, and other practices to limit the spread of germs.
Avian flu is carried and spread by migratory birds, so health officials know it’s only a matter of time before birds in the United States will be threatened. Guidash said some time would be available to get ready as the birds are tracked from adjoining countries, such as Mexico.
“It’s still unknown if the avian flu will be the next pandemic or not,” Guidash said. “It could be another already known influenza strain that mutates. Either way, people need to be aware and stay prepared and keep a hurricane-like focus year around.”
For more information on how to prepare, call the office of Public Health Preparedness at 820-4155.