September 24, 2008

Cornell Prepares For Pandemic Flu

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History tells us that an influenza pandemic occurs, on average, three times every century, according to Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations for Gannett Health Services. The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that the potential for a global flu pandemic is very high and that it is not a question of if one will occur, but rather when.
While it is impossible to say that a pandemic is guaranteed to happen anytime soon, Dittman and the University have agreed that it is best to prepare for the worst and make sure Cornell is not caught unprepared in the event that a pandemic does occur.
The University has produced a “Preparation and Response Plan” for a possible influenza pandemic, which includes guidelines for before a pandemic occurs, what the University would do during a pandemic and how Cornell will recover afterwards.
According to Dittman, a pandemic influenza virus will derive from a foreign virus, most likely from an avian strain of influenza that people will contract from close contact with birds. It can develop into a pandemic when the avian influenza that a human contracts evolves so as to spread from person to person.
“It will be a completely new virus,” Dittman said.
Since it is new, no one will be immune to it, and no vaccine will exist to prevent it. The new influenza virus will spread easily and could develop into a worldwide pandemic.
Dittman explained how today’s methods of international travel could allow the virus to spread globally much more quickly than at any other time in history. If the strain evolves to be able to spread from person to person in an area with an international airport, a pandemic can spread quickly from that point.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website explained the pandemic of 1918. “The Spanish Flu … was an influenza A bird flu virus that mutated and caused a human pandemic.
The new strain was not significantly deadly to birds, but it was fast spreading and dangerous to humans. In the United States, about 2.5 percent of the people who contracted the disease died. More than half of those deaths were from complications from the flu, especially pneumonia and sinusitis.”
“We are now in a pandemic alert period,” Dittman said about the current pandemic status in today’s world.
The alert period means that there are humans that have contracted the avian flu virus known as H5N1. There have been at least 383 people who have contracted the virus, with an approximate mortality rate of 60 percent.
At this point, there is no evidence to suggest that the virus can be transmitted from person to person. This means that each person with the virus had to have contracted it from a bird that carried H5N1.
The current Cornell plan was created so it would not have to wait for the situation to become dire. Included in the plan are situations and parameters for when the University would suspend classes and encourage students to leave the campus. While many students will leave, there will be many, including international students, who will have to remain on campus.
“We need to take care of them,” Dittman said.
The plan includes preparations for providing those students with everything they need, including food, lodging and activities to occupy them.
The number of Cornell students that could be infected with the flu could end up being more than Gannett’s current capacity to treat people. The plan makes preparations to transform the functions of different buildings to meet the needs if they arise, including turning different buildings into places where those infected can be given the proper treatment.
The plan accounts for the immediate needs that would incur from a pandemic, including treatment for the infected, transportation out of campus for those not infected and ability to get necessary supplies to campus. At this point, according to the plan, individuals and departments on campus must identify and understand what they would need to do if a pandemic broke.
For students, it is important for them not only to provide their personal and emergency contact information to the University, but to make a plan for where they will go if Cornell suspends classes and asks students to leave campus.
Specific departments and units on campus need to determine what they will do in the event of classes being suspended. Additionally, they need to decide which of their operations would continue and which would be suspended.
While the University has to make sure it can take care of its own students, Dittman said it was key to be able to combine their efforts with the surrounding community.
“[We are] working hand in hand with the city and the county to make sure we’ve got a coordinate plan,” Dittman said.
In addition to working with the local community, Cornell will also coordinate plans with other institutions, especially other Ivy League universities. Dittman explained that it would not be beneficial for one university to decide to suspend their classes while others remain open. They need to work together to make joint decisions.
“[We] want peer and local institutions to come together on triggers,” Dittman said. The goal would be to decide to suspend classes and send students away from campus before the pandemic arrived in the United States.
“Our role is to know that there is likely to be a pandemic at some time and [to know] what we can do,” Dittman said.
Even though there is no way to determine exactly when a pandemic will happen, getting into good habits is an important way to not only combat seasonal flu, but help inhibit the spread of a pandemic flu as well.
When pandemics do occur, between 20 percent and 40 percent of the population will be infected. But if people practice good mitigation strategies, such as good hygiene, getting enough sleep, eating well and practicing social distancing, it can help ensure that the amount of the population infected is towards the lower 20 percent range as opposed to the upper 40 percent range.
“It’s hoped that mitigation will lessen the impact [of a possible pandemic],” Dittman said.