Avian Flu Update – What Fire Departments Should Know

As a youngster, I would go with my parents to visit my grandparents' graves in a Catholic cemetery in south St. Louis. As youngsters do, I would wander away and find myself walking among the tombstones and grave markers. What I noticed back then and I...


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As a youngster, I would go with my parents to visit my grandparents' graves in a Catholic cemetery in south St. Louis. As youngsters do, I would wander away and find myself walking among the tombstones and grave markers. What I noticed back then and I still can remember today is an entire section of the cemetery where all the tombstones and grave markers had pictures of babies or young children. What struck me was that most of them died between 1918 and 1921.

I did not realize the significance of all of these unfortunate deaths of babies and children who died before their time until last year, when the media started talking about avian flu, bird flu or pandemic flu. Most of these unfortunate souls died from the Spanish Flu of 1918, when 20 million to 40 million people died worldwide, including approximately 675,000 in the United States.

Unless you have been on a sabbatical to some remote mountaintop for the past year, you have undoubtedly heard something in the media about avian flu, bird flu or pandemic flu. The H5N1 virus, known as avian flu, started in the Far East and has spread as far west as Europe and Africa and as far north as Russia. World health experts and those in the United States fear that it will one day become a pandemic. A pandemic is a global outbreak of a new flu virus from which few or no people are immune. It affects people of all ages, and it can occur at any time of the year. Mainly, a pandemic flu starts in countries where swine, fowl and humans all live under the same roof. Major pandemic influenzas of the 20th century include the Spanish Flu of 1918, the Asian Flu of 1957 and the Hong King Flu of 1968.

In order for avian flu to become a pandemic flu, the virus will need to transfer from an animal to a human, mutate, transfer from one human to another and continue to spread. Lately, there have been reported rare cases of human-to-human transfer in the Far East. As of late July 2006, there were 231 cases of humans contracting avian flu, with 133 deaths, or about a 57% mortality rate. The virus continues to evolve with many sub-strains, but it has not yet reached the United States.

Some health experts, though, doubt the veracity of the threat and are calling avian flu such names as "Y2Bird" (referencing the Y2K scare when computers worldwide were supposed to shut down on Jan. 1, 2000). However, whether avian flu becomes the next worldwide pandemic is still unknown. But health experts assert that even if this is not the one, another one will pop up in the future.

What should fire departments do? Should they wait until the first case of avian flu hits the United States? No. Fire departments should be planning now and have a plan ready to go, whether this flu or another one becomes a pandemic. If avian flu becomes a worldwide pandemic, it is estimated that about 30% of the U.S. population will be affected. Of that 30%, about half will seek hospital treatment. On average, each person will infect two or three other people if no precautions are taken. Most will become ill about two days after exposure and the highest risk will be among the young and the pregnant.

If avian flu becomes a pandemic flu, it an be expected to move through communities in waves, with each of the waves lasting approximately six to eight weeks. Typically, there will be two waves, occurring months apart. The entire period of the pandemic will be approximately 18 months to two years and the illness will break out in multiple locations simultaneously.

What can fire departments expect during a pandemic flu? It is estimated that fire departments will see a greater than 25% increase in call volume, especially if your service transports. It is further estimated that 40% of firefighters will be absent from work because of being sick, fear or for caring for a sick family member. And, fire departments can expect an interruption in service delivery from vendors. Also expect food and water supplies to be interrupted, schools and day-care centers to be closed, causing child-care problems for firefighters, and medical care for people with chronic illnesses will be disrupted.

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