Task force making plans to handle hypothetical campus-wide bird flu outbreak

Almost 90 years ago, GW was forced to shut down for a month in the face of a devastating Spanish flu epidemic. With news headlines warning about the threat of avian flu, the University has formed a task force to deal with a potential outbreak of the disease on campus.

The group, an outgrowth of the Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Ad Hoc Committee, will recommend to the University long- and short-term strategies in topics including communications preparedness and medical contingency plans, said John “Skip” Williams, provost and vice president for health affairs. The task force’s first official meeting will take place this week.

“We will liaison with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the World Health Organization and the D.C. Department of Health so that we have the latest information and recommendations on which to base our actions,” Williams said. “The task force will come out with specific recommendations.”

In 1918 a Spanish flu outbreak, the worst flu outbreak of the 20th century, caused an estimated 25 million deaths worldwide. More than 500,000 people died in the United States, and the D.C. Health Department forced the city’s universities to close in October of that year in response to the epidemic. The disease was known for being particularly dangerous to young adults, a group usually less susceptible to complications from the flu than younger and older age groups. Two GW hospital workers died from the flu, although no students were infected.

Jeff Levi, an associate professor of health policy at GW who previously worked at the White House Office of National Aid Policy, said the University should have a structured plan in place that includes quarantine procedures in the event of a bird flu outbreak.

“How would we generally keep the University running when a lot of people are sick?” Levi said. “That’s the sort of thing that needs to be decided now rather than in the heat of the moment … It will be an investment even if we don’t see a pandemic this year.”

But Williams said the bird flu task force would be hesitant to recommend a policy of quarantine in the event of a viral outbreak because quarantines haven’t proven that effective at combating disease spread.

“People can be walking wounded and not know it,” Williams said, adding, “Any quarantine policy is dependent upon what happens.” David Parenti, an infectious disease expert with GW’s Department of Medicine, said the GW Hospital and clinic are in the process of planning for a potential outbreak of the avian flu.

“The issues have to do with isolation – making sure you have the appropriate rooms and the appropriate masks for employees,” Parenti said. “Also making sure you have the necessary amount of medication and whom it should be given to.”

To date, the avian influenza has received worldwide attention because it has been causing a massive outbreak among poultry in Asia since winter 2003. Of the 121 confirmed cases in humans so far, more than 50 percent have been fatal, according the World Health Organization’s Web site.

So far, nearly every documented case of human infection has been caused by direct contact with an infected bird. The virus has not yet demonstrated the ability to infect people via human-to-human contact, but health specialists worry that the bird flu virus could quickly become a worldwide pandemic if it mutates in a way that makes it more easily transmissible from person to person.

No vaccine exits that has proven successful in preventing the avian virus. And a current international shortage of available flu medications, used to treat patients who have already contracted an influenza strain, limits the ability of GW and other medical institutions to order extra supplies of the antiviral drugs.

Parenti said the hospital and clinic have plans to order antiviral medication to treat the flu. The same antiviral medication that is used to treat a normal flu is also used to treat the avian strain.

“Whether and when we would be able to get that (medicine), we don’t know,” he said. He added that in the face of a campus-wide infection, it would be hard for the University to determine how the medicine should be distributed.

Parenti said, “The problem with the avian influenza is that it has a relatively high mortality (rate).”

Assistant Vice President for Public Safety and Emergency Management John Petrie said the University will decide how to publicize information about ways students can protect themselves from the disease based on the flu’s development and spread over time. Petrie said GW would also post a notice on the University’s campus advisory page (http://www.gwu.edu/~gwalert/) in the event of an outbreak threat.

“Right now (the avian flu) is not a present issue for us,” Petrie said. “The information for this and for every other issue we periodically worry about is for students to check the campus advisory page regularly.”

In 2003, GW generated information and warnings for SARS, a viral respiratory illness that was first reported in Asia and spread to more than two-dozen countries including Canada before it was contained. But unlike SARS, the avian flu has generated more public awareness, Parenti said.

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