Preparing for pandemic flu
"Pandemic Flu Are You Prepared?" is a free community health program. It will be presented by Meg Montgomery and Steve Hilley on Oct. 11 at 6:30 p.m. and Oct. 25 at noon in the conference rooms at Yampa Valley Medical Center. For more information, call YVMC's Wellness program at 871-2500.
It is difficult to write about a potential future influenza outbreak without mentioning some scary statistics from the past.
After all, it is estimated that the three flu pandemics in the 1900s killed up to 40 million people worldwide. More than 90 percent of those deaths occurred in 1918 when “Spanish influenza” gripped the globe.
A pandemic is much bigger than an epidemic. It is defined as a global outbreak of a single disease that spreads quickly from person to person.
Many scientists and disease experts believe that another large-scale viral eruption is not only likely, but overdue. That is why communities all over the world, including Steamboat Springs, are busy preparing for a pandemic.
The first step in planning is to educate the public. Yampa Valley Medical Center (YVMC) and the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) are collaborating on two presentations this month. YVMC Infection Prevention Coordinator Meg Montgomery explained why.
“We can’t pretend that it’s not going to happen,” Montgomery said. “Viruses can spread quickly, and we are a very mobile society. We travel from one end of the earth to the other in a matter of hours. Being informed is the first step toward being prepared.”
It is important to point out that pandemic flu is not the same thing as seasonal influenza, which comes around every fall and winter. Seasonal flu is especially dangerous for the elderly, children and people whose immune systems are weakened by chronic illnesses. Most people can avoid the flu and its sometimes fatal complications by getting a yearly flu shot.
Pandemic flu would result from an all-new virus, rather than an annually evolving one. Nobody would be immune to this new virus, for which a vaccine would not exist. Everyone would be at risk.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the 1918 Spanish influenza is that most of its victims were young, healthy adults. The pandemic began in a United States army camp. Soldiers unknowingly carried the virus with them when they were shipped to Europe to fight in World War I. From there, it spread to every continent.
Today, the world is more densely populated and travelers are accustomed to flying great distances in brief amounts of time. If these were the only factors in the potential spread of a deadly virus, disease prevention specialists would be painting a very gloomy picture.
The good news is that public health agencies are better prepared to deal with a widespread viral outbreak than they were in 1918, 1957 and 1968. And they are sharing important information with individuals, families and businesses in an effort to limit the impact of a pandemic.
“We want to give information to people ahead of time about what plans are in place and how resources will be allocated,” Mon-tgomery said. “Awareness, preparedness and cooperation will be crucial during a pandemic.”
The two local presentations will pair Montgomery with Steve Hilley, RN, who is a regional bioterrorism trainer with the Northwest Colorado VNA. These programs will summarize national, state and local planning efforts. The speakers also will explain how flu spreads and how people can protect themselves from germs. Free handbooks and brochures will be available.
Recent natural disasters and terrorist threats have prompted health agencies to recommend that everyone create an emergency kit with basic supplies. Hilley will bring a sample kit and checklist.
Preparation for a pandemic begins with all of us.
Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.
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