As the world braces for the possible pandemic outbreak of a deadly strain of the avian flu virus, Fairfax county and state officials outlined basic information about the virus, municipal preparation efforts and safety procedures in a county meeting last week.
Officials warned citizens that a local outbreak of deadly pandemic flu could take place in three waves over the course of 12 to 18 months, while vaccines and antiviral drugs would be delayed and in short supply after the initial outbreak of the virus.
"There is no way to predict an outbreak [of pandemic flu] and this is why proper planning is important," said Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fairfax County. "This is something very serious to our safety here … this is not science fiction."
The public information and question and answer forum April 18 featured Connolly along with Fairfax County health director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, state public health veterinarian Julia Murphy, Roy Shrout of county Office of Emergency Management, and Fairfax County deputy county executives Verdia Haywood and Rob Stalzer.
It was the first meeting in Fairfax County on the topic of a possible avian flu pandemic with a crowd of about 100 people in attendance, and was broadcast live on Fairfax County Public Access Channel 16.
A pandemic viral outbreak, in this case of the H5N1 subtype of avian influenza, occurs when a new virus is introduced to a large geographic area in which individuals have no previously existing immunity. A pandemic virus, which adapts to a strain that is highly contagious, is able to move through a population quickly and infect a large number of people in a relatively short period of time, according to Addo-Ayensu.
There is concern throughout the world with regards to avian flu because of the "widespread circulation of H5N1 viruses among avian populations and their potential for increased transmission to humans and other mammalian species," according to Addo-Ayensu.
"Our goal is to rapidly detect any outbreak [of avian flu]," said Addo-Ayensu. "These planning capabilities aren't going to prevent a pandemic, but can significantly minimize its impact."
"It is important to find reliable information and teach your children to do the same," she said, calling attention to the necessity of knowing about the presence of an outbreak of pandemic flu and what to expect.
THE H5N1 STRAIN of avian influenza can be found in all kinds of birds but concerns scientists because it has caused a significant mortality in migratory birds, which are typically resistant to the symptoms of avian influenza, according to Murphy.
The fear is that as this virus is sometimes transferred to humans from birds, it could eventually mutate into a form that is transmittable by human to human contact, creating a pandemic flu outbreak, Murphy said.
The H5N1 strain has already caused a number of deaths of these migratory birds in Hong Kong and China the UN World Health Organization has noted. It is the migration patterns of these bird populations that have officials worried of the transmission of the H5N1 virus to the U.S. migratory flyways, specifically on the west coast, which is a shared flyway with Asia.
Though there has yet to be a confirmed case of the H5N1 virus being passed from a wild bird to a human, citizens are encouraged to avoid direct contact with these animals, Murphy said.
"We wouldn't want to discourage people from enjoying Virginia's diverse wildlife," she said. "But we want to remind people to do so from a distance."
Virginia has been assessed to be a low to moderate risk of avian flu by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Despite this qualification, the Virginia Department of Health is currently keeping surveillance on live wild birds and investigating morbidity and mortality of waterfowl and shorebirds, according to Murphy.
AS MANY AS 35 percent of the population could become infected with the virus and a large number of people could die, said Addo-Ayensu. Officials could respond with travel restrictions, the closings of schools and businesses and the cancellation of large public events, she added.
There has yet to be a confirmed case of the H5N1 strain being found in birds in North America, and the virus has yet to mutate to a form contagious among humans, according to Connolly and Murphy.
"It is important to realize that from what we know right now, this is not an easy virus to catch," she said. "If you're a bird, it's a pandemic. If you're a person, we're not quite there yet."
To take steps to minimize the worst-case scenario effects of a pandemic flu outbreak, the Fairfax County Public Health Department has been working alongside agencies such as the United States Center for Disease Control, the United Nations World Health Organization and the Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management.
Emergency capabilities and communication among departments has been greatly improved since Sept. 11, and this has allowed for better planning for an outbreak of pandemic flu, according to Stalzer.
"Many of the resource capabilities we have developed in the last four years would be applicable to [an outbreak of] pandemic flu," Stalzer said. "It is our goal to keep the bell curve as low as possible in terms of the ultimate negative impact."
In the event of an outbreak, the Emergency Operations Center will be activated to "provide coordination and direction of county agencies and manage emergency resources," said Shrout.
County officials would then activate plans to open drug-dispensing sites and promote emergency protective actions, and trained emergency personnel and volunteers will be available to carry out these procedures.
THE OFFICIALS STRESSED the necessity of strong community involvement.
"It is going to take all of us working together to get [to the highest level of preparedness]," Addo-Ayensu said.
"It is very important that [citizens] are not just involved with our plans, but also in their implementation," Stalzer said. "Literally every county department has made avian flu a priority."
As a result, Haywood, who also chairs the Pandemic Flu Planning Executive Committee, said that a large part of preparation involves community outreach.
"Everything we do in this county involves community, involves non-profit [groups], involves the faith community," Haywood said. "We are working to connect with the community ... so we personalize this issue both on an individual and community basis."
"Each individual, each family, has to take time to make sure they have prepared themselves," Stalzer said.
Peggy Morrison, a nurse from Annandale, attended the meeting to learn more about what she would need to do in the event of an outbreak. "I'm going to find out if there are ways I can volunteer on my own," she said.
Margaret Downing, a volunteer nurse with the Medical Reserve Corps, said that she isn't worried about an outbreak of pandemic flu.
"We have had our training, we have a good plan, we have the necessary equipment there, we are very prepared as a county," Downing said.
"It's really up to the people at this point. They need to know what's going on," she said. "We had this town meeting, maybe more of the town should have been here."
A summit on pandemic flu preparedness for Fairfax County businesses is scheduled for May 26.
For more information, visit the county's official Web site for pandemic flu planning at http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/emergency/pandemicflu.