What everyone should know before a flu epidemic strikes

October 03, 2006

Sometimes the things citizens have been warned about but don't really expect to take place happen anyway.

In 1972, rains brought by Hurricane Agnes swelled local streams and the Potomac River, causing widespread flooding.

In January 1996, a blizzard hit the Tri-State area, burying its counties in several feet of snow and sending temperatures down into the teens.

In both cases, the National Weather Service had provided ample warnings - warnings that some citizens didn't heed. Fortunately, thanks to friends, relatives, neighbors and dedicated fire/rescue personnel, most came through with few problems.

Now another agency is warning Washington County residents that sooner or later they will face a health emergency that could kill those who are unprepared.


It has happened here previously. In November 2005, Melinda Marsden, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, gave an historical lecture noting that 400 county residents died here in 1918, after an outbreak of the "Spanish Flu."

By comparison, only 72 county residents died in World War I, Marsden said.

For more than a year, local health department and medical officials have been warning that another outbreak of flu, perhaps the H5N1 strain that has been detected in some parts of Asia, might hit here

How bad could it be? More than 40,000 could contract the disease and hundreds could die.

But citizens need not just wait for the worst to happen. There are steps they can take now to prepare.

They include:

· Getting a flu shot. Health officials say that while today's flu vaccine might not prevent someone from being infected with a new strain, vaccinated citizens who become ill could alert health workers that other measures are necessary.

· Wash hands frequently, with soap and warm water.

· Cover coughs and sneezes with a hand or tissue.

· Avoid others when you are ill and stay out of crowds during flu season, if possible.

· Prepare a two-week supply of food for the family, including one gallon of water per person for every day. For a two-person household, that would be 28 gallons.

· Obtain an extra supply of prescription medicine and other supplies needed to maintain hygiene and care for ailing family members.

· Make sure you have flashlights, portable radios and the batteries they require.

· Finally, sit down now and plan for what you will do if schools or offices are closed for extended periods and how you will care for an ailing family member without becoming ill yourself.

If you would like more detailed information, a community roundtable will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Robinwood Medical Center, Suite 142.

Following a presentation on pandemic flu, officials from the Health Department, Washington County Hospital and local emergency services will be available to answer questions.

To make sure there is adequate seating, officials ask that citizens register in advance. To register, call 301-790-8907 or 1-888-803-1518.

If you cannot attend, but have Internet access, you may want to visit these Web sites: or

If you don't have Internet access, The Herald-Mail can send you a transcript of a May 30 online chat about flu pandemics with officials of the health department, the medical profession and emergency services.

To do that, you may write to the address below and request a copy of the "flu transcript."

Yes, this is frightening stuff, and complicated, too. We don't want to frighten anyone, but we do want to tell people how to protect themselves.

In that we join Mauireen Theriault, a spokesperson for the the Washington County Hospital, who said this week that "our aim is not to scare people, but to help them be prepared."

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