Pandemic preparations under way locally

By Michael Harrell: PNT Staff Writer

Health officials in Portales and across the state have begun preparing for a flu pandemic that officials say could devastate communities with its rapid spread.

In May, Portales city officials received a briefing book from the New Mexico Department of Health outlining precautionary measures the city must take for the potential outbreak of a pandemic flu. The book contains a state-wide plan for the best way to handle the pandemic. Community disease control and prevention are a major part of the plan along with medical surge preparation, infection control and drug distribution. It also requires the Department of Health to keep a tight surveillance for emerging influenza.

“Right now the big push is to get health care professionals educated on how to deal with the pandemic flu and then to get the public educated to help minimize the spread,” said Portales Emergency Manager Chuck Hammond.

Roosevelt General Hospital, Eastern New Mexico University and the fire department have all started their own plan to decrease the chance of infection within the community, according to Tersa Bonifant, the director of Infection Control at RGH. Educating the community on hand hygiene, cough etiquette and how to take care of a sickness without leaving the home are a part of this plan.

The hospitals have been preparing its staff and equipment for about a month, Bonifant said. If an outbreak was to occur they would set up a new emergency room apart from the hospital for individuals suffering from the flu.

A pandemic would introduce a new strain of influenza infecting humans. So no one would be immune yet and there would be no vaccine. The contagious flu would spread rapidly, and is expected to encircle the globe in about three months, according to the World Health Organization.

In the past year, there has been a considerable increase in awareness and funding for the flu, according to State Epidemiologist C. Mack Sewell.

$100 million in funding for state and local preparedness was divided amongst the states and New Mexico received $956,824 which will be portioned out to each county in July, according to a United States Department of Health and Human Services press release.

Currently the avian flu, which has killed tens of millions of birds and poultry in recent years, is very rare in humans, but if it mutates and becomes transmittable from human to human, it may be the world’s next pandemic. Every individual should know what to do, Bonifant said.

Hand hygiene and cough etiquette are some of the easiest actions individuals can take to prevent a pandemic spread, she said. Sick individuals shouldn’t go to work or if they do, businesses may request them to wear a mask.

It would take approximately four months after the pandemic begins before a vaccine would be available, according to Bonifant.

Safety measures would be drastic, said Hammond. Businesses, schools, social gatherings and transportation would all be disrupted or stopped for a period of time, he said.

In the past millennium, there have been three major pandemic flu crises: 1918 (which caused approximately 40 million deaths), 1957 (which caused more than 2 million deaths) and 1968 (which caused approximately 1 million deaths).

“When you look at history, you see we are basically due for another pandemic flu,” Bonifant said.

The chances the pandemic flu will occur are simply unknown, according to Sewell.

“At some point we’ll know, but it is impossible to predict when it might happen,” Sewell said. “The argument is that we should be prepared for the pandemic.”