With the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak unfolding across the globe, the threat of a flu pandemic is higher than it has been in decades. We don’t yet know whether this new virus will become the next pandemic or (as we all hope) simply fizzle out, but now is a good time for families everywhere review their plans for coping with a pandemic and make sure they’re up to date.
What is a flu pandemic?
A flu pandemic is caused by an Influenza A virus, the same type of virus that causes the seasonal flu we deal with every year. The difference is that a pandemic flu strain makes a lot more people sick than the seasonal flu and that it doesn’t just occur during the regular flu season. –A pandemic may last 18 months or more. One other important difference is that, unlike the seasonal flu, which is normally only dangerous to infants and the elderly, pandemic flu strains often cause severe illness among teenagers and young adults, as well. This is a pattern we’re seeing in the preliminary data from the swine flu outbreak, which is cause for concern.
Three conditions must be met in order for a flu virus to cause a pandemic:
- It’s new to humans so that we have little or no pre-existing immunity to it
- It readily causes significant disease in humans
- It spreads easily from person to person
“Swine flu” is a flu virus that normally infects pigs, and most swine flu viruses only meet the first of those three criteria: we’re not immune to them, but they don’t easily causes disease in humans (and such diseases are usually mild when they do occur) and they are rarely ever transmitted from person to person. While the virus implicated in this outbreak is causing significant disease in humans and, based on early reports, is probably spreading from human to human, it is too early to say whether it is doing so at a level that could cause a pandemic to occur. But whether this is the start of the next pandemic or not, it’s an important reminder about the importance of having a plan in place for keeping your family safe when a pandemic does strike.
How should you prepare?
The website www.pandemicflu.gov is the federal government’s one-stop source for pandemic flu-related information, and it offers useful advice on how to prepare. The following checklist comes from that site and will help you to make a good start toward doing what you can to keep your family safe:
1. To plan for a pandemic:
¨ Store a two week supply of water and food. During a pandemic, if you cannot get to a store, or if stores are out of supplies, it will be important for you to have extra supplies on hand. This can be useful in other types of emergencies, such as power outages and disasters.
¨ Periodically check your regular prescription drugs to ensure a continuous supply in your home.
¨ Have nonprescription drugs and other health supplies on hand, including pain relievers, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes, and vitamins.
¨ Talk with family members and loved ones about how they would be cared for if they got sick, or what will be needed to care for them in your home.
¨ Volunteer with local groups to prepare and assist with emergency response.
¨ Get involved in your community as it works to prepare for an influenza pandemic.
2. To limit the spread of germs and prevent infection:
¨ Teach your children to wash hands frequently with soap and water, and model the correct behavior.
¨ Teach your children to cover coughs and sneezes with tissues, and be sure to model that behavior.
¨ Teach your children to stay away from others as much as possible if they are sick. Stay home from work and school if sick.
3. Items to have on hand for an extended stay at home:
Examples of food and non-perishables
¨ Ready-to-eat canned meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, and soups
¨ Protein or fruit bars
¨ Dry cereal or granola
¨ Peanut butter or nuts
¨ Dried Fruit
¨ Canned juices
¨ Bottled water
¨ Canned or jarred baby food and formula
¨ Pet food
¨ Other nonperishable foods
Examples of medical, health, and emergency supplies
¨ Prescribed medical supplies such as glucose and blood-pressure monitoring equipment
¨ Soap and water, or alcohol-based (60-95%) hand wash
¨ Medicines for fever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
¨ Anti-diarrheal medication
¨ Fluids with electrolytes
¨ Cleansing agent/soap
¨ Portable radio
¨ Manual can opener
¨ Garbage bags
¨ Tissues, toilet paper, disposable diapers
How can you help?
If you are interested in helping your community prepare for and respond to a possible flu pandemic, consider volunteering through your local Medical Reserve Corps unit. You don’t need to be a medical professional to join; you just have to be willing to help. You can find out more about the Medical Reserve Corps and how to contact your local unit at www.medicalreservecorps.gov.
You can also volunteer through the American Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org/en/volunteertime), your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) (http://www.citizencorps.gov/cert/) or any of the national, state or local Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster (VOADs) found here: http://www.nvoad.org/.
Take home message
There’s no need to panic. Right now, we don’t know whether this new swine flu virus will become a pandemic or just fizzle out. It’s just too early to tell. But either way, now is a good time to review your plans for keeping your family safe during a flu pandemic. Make sure you have two weeks worth of non-perishable food and water at home. Make sure you have a continuous supply of any medications you rely on. Keep up to date with the latest information and advice at www.pandemicflu.gov, and consider volunteering to help your community in the event of a public health emergency. Because even if this isn’t the next flu pandemic, eventually there will be one. Being prepared before it strikes could make all the difference for you and your family.