PACOM working out ‘any bugs’ in flu plan
Rhonda Jackson is canceling plans to spend the Christmas holiday in Vietnam and reconsidering a spring vacation to Thailand.
One certainty if she does go?
“I love Thai chicken. I’m not going to have it,” said the speech language pathologist for Department of Defense Dependents Schools at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
Jackson isn’t panicked, but she is concerned about avian flu. The H5N1 virus has decimated domestic poultry flocks in Asia and Europe and killed about half of the 120 people it’s sickened in Southeast Asia.
Health experts around the globe are gearing up for a flu pandemic. Some say they’re convinced it’s only a matter of time before the virus mutates into a form that can spread easily among humans.
At Pacific theater medical centers, health officials are taking extra steps to prepare for a potential H5N1 influenza pandemic, said Navy Capt. Konrad Hayashi, U.S. Pacific Command’s director of public health.
This includes monitoring illnesses to look for disease “spikes” and submitting lab samples from patients who may have the flu. Most base hospitals have adequate flu shots for seasonal influenza and are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.
And in two weeks, PACOM will host a pandemic influenza workshop on Pearl Harbor for Navy, Marine, Air Force and Army participants and a number of high- and midlevel civilian health and military observers.
It’s to “work out any bugs we find, to find out where our components can more effectively work together, to find any glitches in our existing instruction, and improve on it,” Hayashi said.
“This is something we are concerned about, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity to get good information out to a lot of people throughout the theater.”
Last week, President Bush unveiled a $7.1 billion pandemic flu strategy, a 396-page plan. PACOM is digesting those details, Hayashi said, while improving on its own preparedness.
In the theater, the service components are devising even more tailored instructions to incorporate PACOM guidelines and any unique circumstances. The Pacific Fleet, for instance, would address shipboard procedures, Hayashi said.
“Among our guidance is increasing social distancing,” he said, such as canceling large assemblies, job fairs, command functions, even school, in the event of an outbreak.
“All of those things are going to have to be looked at very seriously.
“For many active-duty military personnel, the safest place to be if we end up having a pandemic is aboard a ship, in a submarine or deployed away from large populations,” he said.
PACOM has a stockpile of Tamiflu, an anti-viral drug that can reduce the severity of illness when taken within 48 hours of getting sick.
It’s stored at an undisclosed in-theater location where it can be transported throughout the region in 24 hours, Hayashi said.
But, he cautioned, “If we have a true pandemic, nobody knows for certain whether Tamiflu is going to be the medication of choice.”
The National Institutes of Health is developing a vaccine against H5N1 — and the Pentagon is expected to receive its first shipment in February.
Hayashi said he expects PACOM would be given “a pretty hefty allocation because of our proximity to countries of concern, but I have not seen anything official at this point.”
Whether troops would be given priority for the vaccine is guidance that would have to come from higher headquarters, Hayashi said.
But he anticipates servicemembers probably would have first dibs because were there an outbreak, some of them likely would be assigned to execute noncombatant evacuations and other duties in affected countries.
Hayashi said health officials are debating whether a H5N1 pandemic is inevitable. Influenza “pandemics have occurred in periods ranging from 10 years to 50 years or more apart,” he said, noting the last one was in 1968.
“It would be reasonable to expect that we are getting closer to one rather than farther away.”
Official urges everyone to get vaccinated
Though the seasonal influenza vaccination isn’t a safeguard against contracting avian flu, health officials are urging everyone, not just those in high-risk categories, to get immunized. In the event of an H5N1 bird flu pandemic, “those who are vaccinated won’t be filling up health care facilities and sick beds with a respiratory illness that could be indistinguishable clinically, at least in the early stages, from a more dangerous pandemic strain,” said Navy Capt. Konrad Hayashi, U.S. Pacific Command public health director.
The Defense Department appears to have an adequate supply of this year’s flu vaccination, Hayashi said. Most bases throughout the Pacific already have begun immunizing high-risk patients and active-duty personnel, who are required to be vaccinated annually against influenza. Hospitals that don’t yet have the vaccine should receive it by month’s end at latest, Hayashi said.
Humans have been infected with bird flu in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam. In almost all cases, he said, the patient contracted the virus via the blood, bodily secretions or feces of infected chickens or ducks. People can lower their risk of exposure by:
Avoiding markets that sell live chickens and other fowl.Avoiding bird farms.Ensuring poultry is well cooked before consuming it, because the virus is heat-sensitive.Regularly washing hands with soap and water or a waterless hand cleaner.Hayashi also advised that people who become ill after traveling or a deployment should contact their health-care providers and tell them of their travel history.
Travel restrictions to affected countries are not currently in effect.
“If the [Centers for Disease Control] or U.S. State Department issues any travel warnings, we will follow their lead,” said Maj. LeVette Hamblin, a public health officer with 35th Medical Group at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
For more information on avian influenza, visit the following Web sites: