As reported by the Stamford Advocate, June 19, 2006.

Prudence in Planning for Avian Flu

Health officials find themselves walking a bit of a tightrope when discussing the bird flu.

They do not want to unduly frighten people. But they also need to get across the potential threat the virus presents.

"Should it change in just the right way we'd be in big trouble," Dr. Joseph Garner, president of the Connecticut Infectious Disease Society, told attendees of a recent symposium on avian influenza in Norwalk. By "just the right way" he meant a mutation that would cause people to give it to each other, something that has yet to happen.

It's good that our communities are mobilizing to educate people about the virus and what they can do to prevent its spread. But towns and cities also must prepare to deal with a crisis the severity of which is hard to even imagine.

It's easy to brush off thoughts of the flu, especially since there haven't been any reported cases in the United States. But the virus, primarily an Asian affliction, also has shown up in Africa and Europe, and is particularly worrisome because of its shockingly high death rate. There have been at least 225 human cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Of those, 128 people have died.

The best defenses people have against the virus are really matters of common sense: Wash hands frequently, especially after coughing or sneezing (and cover your mouth when doing either), throw out used tissues and use alcohol-based wipes to prevent germs.

"Preparedness is a shared responsibility," says Greenwich Health Director Caroline Calderone Baisley. "An infection carried by one person can be transmitted to many, and for this reason individual preparation is a must."

It is also a good idea to stock up on enough medical and food supplies to last a month in case an outbreak does occur.

At the town and city level, health departments are planning how they would respond to an outbreak. "I think we play two roles," says Norwalk Director of Health Tim Callahan. "In communications, to help the public; and in the event there is a vaccine, we would organize operating clinics."

Vaccinations -- and what to do if there were a limited supply -- would be just the beginning. Responding to a local outbreak would reach beyond health departments to every aspect of the community. Myriad challenges would include some we'd rather not think about, such as dealing with the dead.

Stamford appears to be a model in this regard. For the past four months, representatives from 15 city departments and agencies -- including the health, police and fire departments, Stamford Hospital, the Stamford chapter of the American Red Cross and the Business Council of Fairfield County -- have been meeting to draft a response plan.

It's easy to see from reading all of this why officials are worried about scaring people, and why many of us are content to say "that will never happen here."

But consider the words of Dr. John Shanley, director of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Connecticut Health Center. At the Norwalk symposium, he pointed out that an influenza pandemic occurs every 15 to 40 years, with the last hitting in 1968.

"You can do the math," he said.

Scary stuff indeed. But a little preparation can help tilt the equation back a bit in our direction.