Committee prepares for flu pandemic

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 4, 2007

FRANKLIN—Most of us prepare ourselves each year for seasonal flu by getting vaccinations, and stocking the medicine cabinets with over-the-counter remedies and sanitary hand wash.

But would we be ready if a new flu strain began to spread throughout the area?

The Pandemic Committee has been thinking about it and planning in case of an occurrence since late last year. The mission of the committee is to educate and prepare the citizens of Franklin and Southampton County about pandemic flu, and to create a plan to follow in the event of an outbreak. Meeting monthly, the group formed in November 2006, with the first formal meeting held in December that year.

A flu pandemic, according to committee information, occurs when a new flu strain begins to spread easily and quickly around the world. It can cause a lot of people to be sick at one time without a vaccine being able to be produced quickly; acute illness and many deaths; a short supply of food, goods and services if people have to stay at home.

&uot;Our goal is not to scare people with fears of an outbreak,&uot; said member Erin Turner with the City of Franklin, &uot;but to help them prepare if and when the event occurs.&uot;

Besides Turner, members of the Pandemic Committee are Chairman Charles Wrenn, Franklin City Manager Bucky Taylor, Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson, Southampton County Sheriff Vernie Francis, Franklin Chief of Emergency Services Vince Holt, Southampton Memorial Hospital CEO Sean Dardeau, Amal Patel of the Virginia Department of Health, and Southampton Memorial Hospital employees Anne Williams, Annie Griffin and Laurie Ross.

Two subcommittees, Family Preparedness and Public Awareness/Education, and Planning, Coordination and Implementation, have been established under the committee.

According to Dardeau, the family preparedness committee has compiled a list of about 50 area churches, civic groups and other organizations. Letters are going out to these groups informing them of the committee and its mission.

&uot;We are providing printed materials to them and are soliciting invitations from any organization who would like a presentation,&uot; Dardeau said. &uot;We educate people about what pandemic flu is, how to prepare for it, and how to protect themselves and their families.

&uot;We encourage anyone who doesn’t receive a letter to contact any of us.&uot;

Wrenn said the planning committee is working on other aspects should a crisis occur.

&uot;(That committee) deals with municipal response, such as who will be picking up the garbage, what if the hospital is inundated, and how will we handle the deaths,&uot; he said.

Dardeau said, &uot;(In the event this happens) we are basically on our own. We won’t be able to rely on other municipalities like we would during a hurricane or flood.&uot;

According to the committee, a flu pandemic is very likely to happen again. There were three in the 1900s, with the influenza outbreak of 1918 being the most deadly, killing approximately 675,000 people in the United States.

A strain of bird flu called H5N1 has already infected some humans in other parts of the world, but hasn’t spread from person to person yet.

&uot;During the pandemic of 1918, the primary reason so many died was because there was no preparation,&uot; said Wrenn. &uot;People didn’t know what to do. So, our main focus has been education about preparation at the local level, communications to people and simple things like that.&uot;

The committee is planning to get other community groups involved and coordinated with schools’ pandemic plans.

Williams said, &uot;The information coming out about pandemic flu is information that people would use for any flu. It’s good information to have. It enforces basic health hygiene like washing your hands often.&uot;

A disadvantage of an outbreak, according to Patel, is that it could take months to develop a vaccine for the flu.

&uot;You have to find out what strain it is first,&uot; he said. &uot;That strain has to arrive before an antibody can be developed.&uot;