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U.S. Health Secretary: Md. Unprepared For Flu Outbreak

By Chris Emery
Capital News Service
Friday, Feb. 24, 2006

LINTHICUM HEIGHTS, Md. - The secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told a summit of experts Friday that Maryland, like the rest of the world, is unprepared to cope with a pandemic outbreak of avian flu.

Michael O. Leavitt urged families, businesses and municipalities to plan to take care of themselves.

"Maryland takes an aggressive stance to preparation," he said. "But no one in the world is adequately prepared for a pandemic. Every business, church, school, and city, every county, every family needs a plan."

Leavitt said that while the federal, state and local officials are making progress in preparing for a pandemic, even the best planning would require localities to take care of their own, especially in the early days of an outbreak while the federal government ramps up to distribute aid.

"It is logistically impossible to deal with 5,000 municipalities at once. Any community that fails to prepare, with the expectation that the federal government will come to the rescue, is making a mistake," he told participants of the Pandemic Influenza Summit at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights.

At the behest of President Bush, Leavitt is holding similar meetings with state and local public health officials in every state to discuss their plans for a pandemic.

Leavitt and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich announced at the summit that Maryland would receive $1.8 million of $100 million the federal government is distributing to states to help them prepare for an outbreak.

Ehrlich, who is running for re-election this year, said that Maryland's pandemic response plan, first developed in 1999, and a mock outbreak exercise state officials held last year have made the state better prepared than others to cope with the "monumental challenge" of avian flu.

He admitted, however, that there is still much to be done.

"We are better prepared than last year," he said. "Do we need to get better? Of course."

Part of the reason people are not prepared, said Lynn Goldman, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is that most people receive no training on what to do in the case of a pandemic.

"When I was a kid we learned what to do in the case of an atomic bomb attack," she said. "People don't get that anymore. We are not a culture of preparedness."

Goldman said she is working with government agencies to develop ways to objectively measure a community's level of preparedness for a disaster, but that a rigorous method for doing this has yet to be developed.

Until it is, she said, no one can say for sure if a community is ready or not.

To get information to the public on preparing for the regular flu season and a worldwide outbreak of avian flu, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently launched a new flu-preparedness Web site, to help people prepare for an outbreak. The site also gives the current world-wide threat level of pandemic flu, a measure developed by the World Health Organization.

On Friday, for example, the site indicated that there were currently no cases of pandemic flu in Maryland or the rest of the country.

According to the World Health Organization, 92 people around the world have died since 2003 from a strain of avian flu similar to the virus that in 1918 killed an estimated 40 to 50 million people worldwide.

Speaking to the summit participants, Leavitt emphasized that the flu moves in 20- to 30-year waves and that another outbreak is inevitable.

"Is this a case of the boy who cried wolf? Is this Y2K?" he asked. "No, it's not. Pandemics happen, and there is no difference between 1918 and now in Maryland."


Copyright 2006 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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