Ark. Officials Advise Locals to Plan for Pandemic

May 1, 2006

Every Arkansan, city and county should be putting together a plan on how they will respond to a pandemic flu because the state and federal governments aren’t going to be much help if an outbreak occurs, health and emergency officials say.

The current avian flu may not be the virus that mutates into a pandemic affecting humans. But three major influenza pandemics have occurred in the past century, and the question is not if there will be another one, but when it will hit, according to Dr. Nate Smith, medical director of infectious diseases at the Arkansas Division of Health.

A pandemic illness that spreads easily from human to human could affect 35 to 50 percent of the population in just a few months, and hundreds of thousands of people in the United States could die.

Federal and state agencies may see half their workers out sick or taking care of sick family members, making it impossible for them to help others, Smith says.

Smith, health director Paul Halverson, and David Maxwell, deputy director of the state Department of Emergency Management, spoke Friday to a group of about 200 health, business and community leaders at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The meeting was part of an effort to get the word out that local communities should prepare now for a pandemic.

They said communities should develop a detailed plan that will get them through several months without federal and state help in the face of social, medical and economic disruptions caused by a pandemic. The plan should consider isolation precautions, deal with mass deaths, and how to keep electricity flowing.

Halverson said individuals should have at least two-months supply of food and medication in case essential supplies are cut off from an area. Local daycare services, churches, schools and other meeting places might have to shut down temporarily, to help control the spread of the disease.

Local leaders at the meeting expressed concern about keeping essential services functioning.

“If we lose 50 percent of our staff, how will we get enough deputies on the street,” asked Capt. Tom Brewster of the Benton County Sheriff’s Office.

Brewster said his two biggest concerns were staffing and controlling the disease in a jail population of 400 that changes daily.

Laura Phillips of the Elizabeth Richardson Center said she was concerned for families that had children at the center, which provides childcare for those with special needs.

“About 80 percent of our families are on Medicaid. They can only order a 30-day supply of medication for their children,” she said. “Some of them can’t buy dinner tonight, how will they afford a two-month supply of food?”

Halverson said the state Legislature recently approved about $6 million for the department to buy antiviral medication that may help prevent the flu in some people. The medicine also may help someone who recently contracted the flu to stave off the worst effects.

Halverson said assistance also will be available from the state to help local governments plan and prepare for a pandemic. And federal legislators have appropriated $6.7 billion for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to plan and prepare for a pandemic. Most of the money is to be used to develop and stockpile vaccines.

Information from: The Morning News,

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