Emory Report
December 12, 2005
Volume 58, Number 14


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December 12 , 2005
Pandemic task force leads way in avian flu preparedness

BY holly korschun

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 Europe have 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 faculty and 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 system.”

Emory is fortunate to have within its faculty a wealth of expertise and national leadership in infectious diseases and public health. 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 faculty, such 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 joining Emory.

The task force has examined in detail every element of pandemic flu preparedness at a large university and academic medical center. It encompasses working groups focused on:
• 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 constituencies?)

“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 healthy during a normal flu season 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 only for 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. The site includes an FAQ and web resources, including CDC information and World Health Organization updates on avian flu cases worldwide.