As bird flu made its first foray into Western Europe last week, Arlington health and emergency response officials have begun expanding their preparedness efforts in case the virus spreads across the Atlantic Ocean.
In recent weeks emergency management officials have held regional drills to better coordinate their response to a possible bird flu pandemic, and conducted training sessions with top county staff members, said Bob Griffin, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management.
Health officials have held meetings the past two weeks with the Arlington County Civic Federation and the County Council of PTAs to disseminate information to residents on how best to plan for a pandemic and limit the reach of the virus.
“We can’t do preparation during a pandemic,” said Dr. Reuben Varghese, Arlington’s public health director. “We have to do it before. People need to be pro-active and think ahead about how they would be affected.”
The spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu last week to Austria, France and Germany, has spurred fears that the virus may soon mutate and become easily transmissible between humans.
Though the virus is highly contagious between birds, its transfer from person to person has been limited thus far and has not continued beyond one person. There is currently no vaccine to protect humans from the H5N1 strain, which has killed 91 people worldwide since 2003.
The strain of the virus currently posses little threat to Arlington residents because there are few domesticated birds in the county who could be infected by migrating wild birds, Varghese said.
If the virus does mutate into a form that can pass between humans, health officials would immediately increase their surveillance efforts in coordination with state and federal agencies.
Virginia recently set aside $2.3 million for pandemic preparedness, but Josephine Peters, the county’s public health emergency planner, is not aware of any of that funding being earmarked specifically for Arlington, much to her chagrin.
“We’re increasingly asked to do more and more without getting the funds to support those activities,” she said.
While there is currently no commercially available vaccine to fight bird flu, doctors are debating whether anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu can be effective in combating the symptoms.
The county does not possess a stockpile of Tamiflu, and currently has no plans to purchase supplies of the anti-viral drug, Varghese said. Regional entities are considering buying it though, he added.
“We don’t know how effective it is,” Varghese said. “If there is absolute evidence it would help stop it in its tracks, it would be appropriate” to buy Tamiflu.
IF A BIRD FLU pandemic does hit Arlington, it could last up to four months and affect 35 to 50 percent of residents, health officials said. Individuals who caught the virus could be sick anywhere from one to three weeks.
All segments of the population would be at risk, not just young children and the elderly, Varghese said. As evidence he cited the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, during which healthy adults were most affected.
Once the virus was present in the community, local health officials would work closely with their regional, state and federal counterparts to disseminate pivotal information to the public.
The main focus would be on preventing the spread of the virus, with officials telling residents to take the same precautions they would during a normal flu season.
The best defense is to wash one’s hands frequently with soap and water, and to cover coughs and sneezes with tissues, not one’s hands, Varghese said.
Since healthy adults can infect others beginning one day before symptoms are evident, and up to five days after they become sick, it is imperative that those who feel ill stay home and not go to work, Peters said.
Varghese also advises residents to have an extra supply of water, food and medicines available so they will not have to leave their houses if they are sick.
“During a pandemic the supplies of medicine are affected,” he said. “Scrambling makes people nervous and affects their response to a crises.”
A raging pandemic could cripple the county’s emergency response staff and health professionals, since they would be most vulnerable to infection.
County officials are already forming contingency plans to carry on critical services if a large percentage of personnel do fall ill.
“No doctors will be coming from other areas,” Peters said. “We have to be as self-sufficient as we can.”
Local organizations and civic associations will play critical roles in transmitting information to residents, and will be needed to help organize the local response in the face of a deadly pandemic.
Arlington residents “have a long history of being able to rise to the occasion,” Varghese said. “We will ask people to step up to the plate, get our message out and check on their neighbors.”