December 12 , 2005
task force leads way in avian flu preparedness
In the modern world of rapid and frequent air travel,
infectious diseases can move around the world at lightning speed.
Increasing reports of the spread of avian influenza
(the so-called bird flu, referring to the H5N1 virus) in Asia and
medical experts worried
that the avian flu virus might mutate and become easily transmitted between humans.
So far the virus is still very rare, with only 133 human cases and 68 deaths
(and no documented case of human-to-human transmission), but experts are certain
another flu pandemic will occur—the only question is when.
In October, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs
Michael Johns convened a pandemic influenza task force, a group of
staff throughout the
Woodruff Health Sciences Center with diverse skills in infectious diseases, public
health, student health, vaccines, emergency medicine, health care management,
communications, environmental health and safety, law, and human resources. Johns
charged the task force with developing a comprehensive plan to address the threat
of pandemic flu.
“Even though the threat of pandemic flu reaching the United States may
seem remote, this is the critical time for Emory to develop a thorough plan that
will keep the most people healthy in the case of a pandemic, help us avoid panic
and last-minute decision making, and keep the lines of communication open to
all our constituencies,” Johns said. “If we waited until the last
minute to plan, we would be placing thousands of our staff and patients at unnecessary
risk and could cripple the operation of the entire University and health care
Emory is fortunate to have within its faculty a wealth
of expertise and national leadership in infectious diseases and public
Many faculty in infectious
diseases in the School of Medicine, the Emory Vaccine Center and the Rollins
School of Public Health serve on national committees that make decisions about
infectious disease prevention and preparedness. They maintain collaborative
relationships with the CDC and the Georgia Department of Public Health. Several
as Rollins Dean Jim Curran, Professor Ruth Berkelman, Vice President for Academic
Health Affairs Jeffrey Koplan, Professor James Hughes and Vaccine Center Associate
Director Walter Orenstein, occupied high-level positions at the CDC before
The task force has examined in detail every element
of pandemic flu preparedness at a large university and academic medical
It encompasses working groups
• strategic inventory (Should antiviral medications be stockpiled? How much?);
• vaccine priorities (Who receives avian flu vaccine if supplies are limited?);
• surge capacity and management (Where will patients be treated? Will they be isolated?
How can an adequate health care workforce be ensured? Should parts of the University
be temporarily closed?); and
• communications (How should students, faculty, staff and the health care team
be informed about the pandemic? How can the University communicate with outside
“Everyone at Emory should be aware of the challenges a flu pandemic could
present to them personally and to the University as a whole,” said William
Bornstein, chief quality officer for Emory Healthcare. “If we all understand
the issues involved ahead of time and plan for them, we won’t be surprised
by the challenges and possible hardships.”
Johns expects a final Emory pandemic flu preparedness
plan to be in place by early 2006. Meanwhile, the best way to remain
during a normal
is to get vaccinated; although the schedule of flu shots through the Faculty
Staff Assistance Program has ended, Emory employees may still obtain a
vaccination for seasonal (not avian) influenza through their
primary care physicians.
Emory Healthcare strongly encourages its employees to be vaccinated, not
their own health but to minimize risk of transmission to patients.
WHSC is maintaining a website (www.whsc.emory.edu/avianflu)
with current information about both seasonal and pandemic flu preparedness.
includes an FAQ
and web resources, including CDC information and World Health Organization
on avian flu cases worldwide.