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City Plans for Phase II of Avian Flu Preparation

By Meghan Streit
Medill News Service

(Medill News Service) CHICAGO The second phase of preparation for the possibility for an avian flu pandemic will officially begin in Chicago this fall.

Phase II will focus on family preparedness and continuity of government and business in the event of an outbreak. Phase I preparation began last September and was partly funded by a $1.2 million federal grant.

The 2006 federal appropriation for nationwide avian flu preparation is $350 million, according to Christine Kosmos, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Dept. of Public Health. Kosmos said she hopes the funding for phase II will exceed the initial federal grant.

Kosmos and other officials at a Union Club panel discussion on Thursday emphasized the importance of pandemic preparation at the local level. Kosmos said if a massive flu outbreak occurs, Chicago agencies may not be able to turn to state and national government for assistance, as they typically would in an emergency.

"We should not plan on getting lots of resources from somewhere else because everyone will be in the same boat," Kosmos said. "We need our own supplies, our own staffing plans, and we need to make sure our residents are as prepared as they can be."

Ginny Nareste, public information officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said about 90 percent of emergencies are handled by local first-responders, such as police and fire departments.

An avian flu pandemic is inevitable, according to Dr. Michelle Watters, regional emergency coordinator for the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness for the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We don't know what the timing will be, so the question is, 'What do you do for planning?'" Watters said.

The panel experts disputed the claim that unnecessary hysteria has been created around the avian flu, saying a possible pandemic is not like anthrax or mad cow disease -- past scares that never escalated to the levels initially anticipated.

"You have a history of influenza," Watters said. "It occurs and it is naturally evolving."

Public health experts said the Spanish flu killed up to 40 million people in 1917-1918. The Asian flu claimed one to two million lives from 1957-1958, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-1969 caused one million deaths.

Watters said one of the key concerns is vaccine development. She said there is a production shortage of regular influenza vaccine, causing heightened concerns about the nation's ability to produce an adequate supply of avian flu vaccine.

There are currently 20 million anti-viral treatment doses to combat avian flu in the national stockpile, Watters said. The goal is to make 81 million doses available by the end of 2008. Treatment involves taking two pills per day for five days.

Another focus of the phase II preparation is getting businesses ready for a potential pandemic. Mike Rice, a Union Club health and sciences committee member, said that if an avian flu pandemic hit the U.S., the economic impact would be a loss $675 billion. Another impact would be that people who contract the illness, which could be 30 percent of the U.S. population, would out of the workforce for about three weeks.

Watters said that local business owners need to start discussing the possibility of an avian flu pandemic with their management teams and making plans to keep their companies running in the event of an outbreak.

"We're going to engage businesses early in our [phase II] plan," Kosmos said.

Kosmos said some issues companies should start discussing are human resources policies about extended sick leave and shift and work-at-home arrangements. The measures include making sure bathrooms are stocked with soap and signs reminding employees to wash hands, and disaster recovery plans to deal with events like a supplier going out of business or a key executive getting sick.

Kosmos said also that some businesses may have to work with their competitors to draft emergency plans, and consider merging resources to stay in business during a pandemic.

Kosmos said families should prepare for the pandemic by stockpiling food, water and medication, gathering emergency contact information, and visiting informational websites like alertchicago.com.

"It's more like a Katrina than anything else we will ever plan for," Kosmos said.

Watters stressed that the avian flu in its current form is still a bird flu. She said people who contracted the disease were in very close contact with infected birds. Nevertheless, she said she thinks preparation for a future pandemic is extremely important.

"The more we prepare people up-front. . .the less I think there will be hysteria," Kosmos said.