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Homeland Security

American Forces Press Service

Information Key in Stemming Potential Pandemic Flu Outbreak

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2007 – Servicemembers and their families should be aware of Defense Department efforts to prepare the force and assist the nation in a possible outbreak of pandemic influenza, a senior official said.

“You can never be ready enough. We have a plan in place,” Ellen P. Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness, said during a joint Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service interview.

The Defense Department is in the process of rolling out its Pandemic Influenza Implementation plan, which is part of the president’s initiative to prepare the nation for a potential mass outbreak of deadly flu virus.

“It’s important to know that (the plan) is there, to get information about it, and to know your role in it,” Embrey said.

Military and civilian leaders, in particular, need to emphasize to rank-and-file employees the important role that good public hygiene, including the regular washing of hands, plays in preventing influenza or limiting its scope, Embrey said.

Pandemic flu is a fast-spreading human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness that could sicken or kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people, according to the U.S. government’s pandemic flu Web site. For example, the 1918 flu epidemic killed millions of Americans.

It could take six to eight months to develop a vaccine for pandemic flu after it strikes, Embrey pointed out.

As a rule of thumb, sick people should stay at home if they have the flu or any other malady, Embrey said. This practice helps to prevent passing illnesses to others and speeds patients’ recovery times, she added.

“Don’t come to work when you have the ‘sniffles,’ especially during the flu season,” Embrey emphasized.

Currently there’s no pandemic flu. However, medical experts have been closely observing cases of avian, or bird, flu across Asia and parts of the Middle East. One bird-flu virus in particular, known as H5N1, is especially deadly to fowl. It can be spread to humans, who have no natural immunity to it.

There’s currently no vaccine for avian flu, and more than 170 people worldwide have died from it, according to the World Health Organization.

Servicemembers and their families, along with other young adults, could be especially susceptible to a pandemic flu outbreak, Embrey noted.

“If we go based on history when (flu) pandemics occurred, they actually attack the young, healthy adults and young children,” Embrey said. “Those are not usually the ones you see getting the regular, seasonal flu.”

The seasonal flu is a respiratory illness that, like deadlier forms of the virus, can be spread by human-to-human contact. Seasonal flu particularly affects the very young and older adults. However, most people have some immunity to seasonal flu, and a vaccine is available.

Embrey reiterated the importance of informing young servicemembers and their families about how to confront a potential outbreak of pandemic flu.

“We want to make sure that people in our (military) population, which is mostly a young, healthy population, understand that they are vulnerable and do take appropriate precautions, particularly before a pandemic-specific vaccine is available,” Embrey said.

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