EUCOM, components prepare for potential pandemic flu

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Officials are meeting in Stuttgart this week to plan for how best to deal with a potential outbreak of avian influenza that could mutate into a pandemic flu.

Conference attendees, including subject matter experts from throughout the region, are creating a comprehensive plan in coordination with U.S. European Command, host nations, the Department of Defense and other governmental agencies to deal with a possible pandemic caused by the mutation of the H5N1 influenza virus, more commonly known as “bird flu,” that is currently circulating through domestic and wild bird flocks around the world.

“Due to the serious consequences presented by a potential pandemic, and in support of U.S. government worldwide efforts, EUCOM is coordinating with appropriate organizations and governments to ensure that people are protected and informed,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Sanders, the lead project officer for EUCOM’s pandemic influenza response team.

The DOD, Department of State, Health and Human Services, World Health Organization, and other governments and agencies are preparing for a possible pandemic -- a global outbreak of disease -- of avian influenza. These organizations are building on the knowledge and experience from other recent public health crises, including SARS and the 2001 anthrax attacks, to meet the threat of a pandemic outbreak. EUCOM and its component commands are continuing the planning process to protect their service members, family members and employees while maintaining operational readiness.

The presence of even a limited number of human cases of avian influenza has raised concerns that the current situation could become a pandemic if the virus develops the ability to spread from human to human. If such a situation should occur in Europe, the EUCOM plan suggests individuals should be prepared to increase good personal hygiene practices such as hand washing, cough and sneeze etiquette, and care in food preparation. In the event of an epidemic avian influenza outbreak, social distancing, isolation and quarantine procedures may have to be implemented. Social distancing includes limiting social gatherings and interactions such as attending school, churches, civic clubs and groups, and work activities. Local commanders and health officials will notify personnel of specific procedures on their installations.

Some existing antiviral treatments are available to possibly mitigate a pandemic influenza virus. There is currently no vaccination available to counter the virus in its existing form. Once the bird flu virus has mutated to where it can be passed from human to human, experts estimate that it will take at least six to nine months to develop an effective vaccine. However, the mitigating antiviral medications have proven somewhat successful at blocking the replication of the virus if treatment begins within 24 to 48 hours.

While it is unusual for people to get influenza infections directly from animals, sporadic human infections and outbreaks caused by certain avian influenza viruses are cause for concern. These sporadic human infections, however, rarely result in sustained transmission among humans. Avian flu currently does not have the ability to be transmitted through human to human contact.

In order for the bird flu virus, or any virus for that matter, to cause a pandemic, several factors must be present. According to a town hall meeting on the subject hosted by the American Consulate General in Frankfurt, Germany, the most notable factors include the ability for the virus to replicate itself in humans and to be efficiently able to transmit from human to human. When the human population does not have immunity against such a virus, a pandemic is possible.

Even though the bird flu and human flu viruses are different, they are spread in the same way, and experts are unsure whether the current strains of avian influenza will evolve into a pandemic strain. However, it has shown the ability to mutate, so it is a concern. While there have been changes in the virus over time, there is currently no indication that the virus has changed to a form that could result in a pandemic. This possibility is being closely monitored by numerous health organizations around the world.

In that vein, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, awarded two contracts to support the production and clinical testing of an investigational vaccine based on the H5N1 strain of avian influenza. Before a pandemic strikes, there is no way to tell what the particular strain of virus will be. Research studies to test a vaccine to protect humans against this strain began in 2005.

Conference attendees stress that it is extremely important that people remain calm about the potential for a pandemic. While no vaccination for this strain of flu currently exists, individuals can take precautions as simple as getting a regular flu shot, maintaining good health practices such as eating balanced diets and exercising, and cough and sneeze etiquette.

Travelers to areas with identified outbreaks of avian flu are encouraged to take necessary precautions to prevent the contraction and spread of this disease. It is believed that most cases of bird flu infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. Most of the proven cases have occurred following close contact with infected birds or a massive ingestion of undercooked infected chicken meat or chicken blood. International travelers should visit the State Department’s travel Web site at www.travel.state.gov to determine the travel restrictions in their destination country.