Washington County public health workers train for pandemic flu outbreak

June 19, 2008|By JOSH SHAW

HAGERSTOWN -- Washington County public health staff participated Wednesday in an exercise to test their responsiveness and preparation for a pandemic flu outbreak, something scientists say will occur.

The training session at the Western Maryland Hospital Center was just one of many exercises organized by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and carried out this week, said Rod MacRae, a county health department spokesman.

"Our main purpose is to test planning and response to an outbreak mainly focusing on distribution through our internal staff," Health Officer Earl Stoner said. "It's so our internal staff respondents can help the community."

For the drill, Washington County Health Department employees focused on the distribution of emergency medications to the public.

"We have not historically been involved in training, but in the last five or six years there has been an upswing in the desire for us to respond (to emergencies)," MacRae said.


Should a real flu pandemic occur, staff members would be able to apply their training anywhere in the country, but schools will be the most likely distribution centers, he said.

The drill tests how efficient the response is and what the health department is capable of handling in case of an actual outbreak, Stoner said.

Participants practiced the nonmedical model of distribution, which limits the amount of screening each patient goes through in order to speed up the process.

"Patients" were asked their symptoms, age, height, weight and a few other questions regarding their medical history. Each patient then was given one of two anti-viral medications, directions on when to take the medication and basic information about pandemic flu.

Tamiflu and Relenza, the two drugs offered, are prescription drugs that help prevent the influenza virus and shorten the effects of the virus, but whether they will be effective in fighting a pandemic flu outbreak has yet to be determined, Stoner said.

"A lot of it is based on assumptions that the medications will work," he said. "Some people think it is a waste of time if they are ineffective, but some say it is better than nothing. It is another tool in the toolbox."

A flu pandemic can occur when a new strain of the influenza virus emerges to which people have little or no immunity and for which there is no vaccine available.

The disease spreads quickly, and determining when the next flu pandemic will hit and how severe it will be is extremely difficult, medical experts say.

Influenza pandemics have hit three times in the last 100 years -- 1918, 1957 and 1968 -- with the first occurrence leaving more than 50 million people dead worldwide.

What is pandemic flu?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site described a pandemic flu as a virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person.

More information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can be obtained at

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