Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu and the Rubber Meets The Road

When a novel infectious disease makes its presence known, the public health infrastructure swings into action. Now, with the rapid emergence of swine flu in a number of countries around the world, this is a prime example of where the public health rubber meets the road.

Today, the World Health Organization raised the pandemic level for swine flu to Phase 4, meaning that there is now documented human-to-human transmission of a virus "able to sustain community-wide outbreaks". The WHO pandemic classification uses a scale of 1 to 6, with a rating of 6 signifying a global pandemic, a potential that officials are quick to say may or may not occur.

While no one in the United States has yet died from swine flu infection, the public health community takes the situation seriously, especially in light of the rising death toll in Mexico, and the emergence of disease in Spain, Scotland and Canada. in Queens, New York, a number of children who traveled to Mexico over spring vacation have been officially diagnosed with swine flu, and there are reports of school closings in various parts of the country.

Today, conference calls were scheduled by the CDC, state departments of public health, and other major players in the public health and emergency preparedness arenas.

Since I just recently attended the Integrated Medical, Public Health, Preparedness and Response Training Summit in Dallas last month, I am acutely aware of how the CDC's Strategic National Stockpile figures largely into the response to just this type of public health emergency, and word has it that large amounts of stockpiled antiviral medications are at the ready if mass prophyaxis of the population is needed.

I am duly impressed by the rapid response of the CDC, FEMA and other important agencies involved in the effort vis-a-vis the swine flu outbreak, and we are ready to activate our local Medical Reserve Corps chapter if emergency dispensing of medications or other municipal response is needed.

Speaking of the Medical Reserve Corps, this swine flu outbreak is yet another example of why we need more medical (and non-medical) volunteers to join their local chapters. The MRC is an important part of the public health and emergency response infrastructure, and having a network of thousands of screened, vetted and trained volunteers ready to be mobilized across the country to assist in the response to these types of situations is crucial to protecting local, regional and national responders from being overwhelmed in the case of a surge of need on the part of the public.

For up-to-date information on the outbreak, visit the CDC's Swine Flu Website. This is not a tie for panic, yet it is also a time for vigilance, good hygeine and handwashing, and a circumspectful caution vis-a-vis individuals who exhibit any signs of flu-like illness. Medical providers are receiving detailed information regarding the epidemiology, symptoms and treatment of swine flu. Any individual with flu-like symptoms should refrain from going to work, school or other public places. Such individuals should absolutely wear a mask when in public, and should visit a medical provider as soon as possible.

As a local public health official, I am watching this situation carefully along with my colleagues, and we are in frequent communication with our state department of public health, our local schools, area colleges, and other partner agencies.

The public health infrastructure is indeed in full swing, and I am currently swept up in the rising tide of surveillance as the outbreak widens and deepens.
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