Posted by: cindystephenson | August 23, 2009

Pandemic Flu Communications

Flu shot

What course do you predict the H1N1 virus will take this fall? Do you have enough food and water to last you, your family and your pets at least 72 hours? Here’s why you might want to at least consider doing that.

In the absence of a crystal ball, we don’t know if the pandemic flu will continue in its mild form or get a whole lot worse.

Governments are monitoring the situation closely. In my home province of British Columbia, the provincial government posts regular updates on Twitter and Facebook.

Larry Smith, of the Institute for Crisis Management writes:

The world has experienced a pandemic every 30-to-40 years since at least 1500. The last two, in 1957 and 1968 came very close together and were relatively mild. However, the fall wave of the 1918 pandemic resulted in an estimated 50-million fatalities worldwide.

Based on historical evidence, the world may be in phase one of a three-phase pandemic wave. It is still relatively mild with a relatively low death rate. Based on what happened in 1918, 1957 and 1968, there will be a much stronger wave of flu this fall.

The current H1N1 pandemic will most likely be pervasive.  By pervasive, experts are meaning that it is expected to infect one-third to one-half of the world population over the next two years (not counting those who get vacinated, once the vaccine arrives). Pervasive is not the same as severity. However even in its  present mild form, it will be at least as severe as seasonal flu – causing one death in a thousand cases.

Peter Sandman has written extensively on H1N1 from a risk communications perspective, and puts “one death per thousand” in context:

One death in a thousand cases doesn’t sound that mild. If you know two or three thousand people, someone you know will probably die of swine flu. Several people you know will get seriously ill and need hospitalization. And maybe a thousand people you know will go through a week or so of feeling really awful and not able to do much of anything, even taking care of themselves.

If the strain turns virulent, and we don’t know if it will, we may be looking at a North American death toll in the hundreds of thousands or even the millions. A severe pandemic could easily disrupt supply chains, leading to shortages of all sorts of essential supplies. Factories, schools and essential services might have to shut down for lack of staff. Again though, nobody knows at this point.

But because the possibility exists, Sandman and others advise people to have a week’s supply of food, medications and other supplies on hand. You may be too sick to go shopping, you may want to avoid possible contact with other sick people, or the stores may have run out of what you need. There are other things you can do to prepare as well – beyond staying home if you’re sick, covering your cough, and washing your hands:

  • Teach your children good hygiene so they can protect themselves from the flu virus.
  • Consider developing a family plan for a pandemic so you can address issues such as family illness and school or daycare closures.
  • Have a financial plan in case you or a family member is unable to work for a period of time due to illness or family illness.
  • If you own a business, have a plan in place to address employee absenteeism and a possible decrease in sales and revenue.
  • Talk with neighbours, seniors and others in your neighbourhood to see if they require any help.

Useful Links:

Is this really necessary?

Some of you will disagree with these recommendations. And you have a  point. If the flu stays as mild as it has been so far, extensive preparation won’t be necessary. You won’t need to have extra food, meds, pet food, gas, water and cash on hand. The government is actively working toward an H1N1 vaccine. Individual stockpiling might even lead to shortages or be seen as panic. And besides, it’s not as if you won’t have any warning.

However, these recommendations are not meant for the current mild pandemic – they’re meant for the more severe pandemic that could emerge from the mild pandemic sooner or later (or never). Supermarkets tend to stock items on a “just in time” basis, and will run out of supplies if it turns out to be the big one. And it makes sense for businesses to identify mission critical activities and have a pandemic plan in place.

We don’t know how much lead time we’ll have and it’s not easy to prepare for an emergency after it arrives.

What do you think?

Does your organization have a pandemic plan in place? Should we be encouraging citizens to prepare and what is the best way to get their attention and get the word out?

Photo credit: nigro pino

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