Jim Tiffin
Cibola County Bureau
GRANTS Pandemic flu is coming, health experts say and with it comes a myriad of problems.

A mutated avian flu could kill millions of people just like the Spanish flu did in 1918 by killing 20 million people, health experts say.

Widespread illness from the flu, because it mutates faster than it takes to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine, may also create shortages of workers, including first responders, medical personnel, truckers, manufacturers, military, law enforcement and even doctors and nurses.

Peggy Jordan, Cibola County emergency management coordinator said several agencies including her department, the state health department, public health and American Red Cross are working both jointly and separately on planning how to best respond to this health crisis that may be as soon as this next flu season, caused by mutations of the avian, or bird flu.

"The virus (avian flu) has not mutated to humans yet. It is just a matter of time," Jordan said.

A "Unified Command" created to plan and respond to the pandemic, includes the New Mexico Emergency Managers Association, Office of Emergency Management of the Public Safety Department, the Governor's Department of Homeland Security and Office of Health Emergency Management of the New Mexico Department of Health, Jordan said.

Briefing locally elected officials in the county, including the board of commissioners, the Grants City Council and the village of Milan's board of trustees in step one. Briefing these officials about what a pandemic is and the problems it is expected to create is important so that local governments can begin to make contingency plans, she said.

By August, according to a schedule provided by Jordan, she will have briefed the officials, which she is doing this month and next; conducted local meetings with the hospital, public and private health care officials, businesses and schools; completed an assessment and developed a pandemic flu response plan that will become part of the Emergency Management's Operations Plan; conducted exercises to train and prepare for the pandemic.

"We will be doing tabletop exercises where everyone answers questions, that lets us know where we are in terms of strengths and weaknesses and what we have to do to prepare for the pandemic," Jordan said.

She said the federal government is expecting the disease attack rate to be about 30 percent of the population, about 600,000 in New Mexico alone.

This will create an increase in patients going to hospitals and doctors' offices, and a "hospital surge" plan is being created, she said.

Jordan said if a pandemic occurs, it could cause major health, social and economic consequences by overwhelming every healthcare, social and economic structure on a global scale simultaneously.

The avian flu currently is limited only to birds, but several humans have died as a result of handling infected birds directly.

With every diseases, mutation occurs, and in influenza viruses if the avian flu becomes mutated to be spread from human to human, that is when the pandemic could start, Jordan said.

Tom Collins, the coordinator of the Cibola Chapter of the American Red Cross said the Red Cross will not be providing mass shelters but will only be working to bring food to those who are homebound because of the flu.

"We (Red Cross) will have to be able to respond to all the other disasters that occur, too," he said.

He said he and Red Cross planners are expecting the health care system to be incapacitated by the large numbers of people needing care simultaneously, and the Red Cross will not be able to provided direct medical care.

Collins said storing about 10 days of water and food supplies in the house to prepare for the pandemic may be a good idea.

The flu season begins in October-November and lasts through the end of March usually, or sometimes into early April, but the flu usually only lasts a few days for healthy people, longer for those with respiratory or other problems such as heart problems, the health department said.

"Everyone is going to be on their own in the pandemic," Jordan said.

"It is going to hit everywhere at once and so resources that we might be able to draw on from other parts of the state will probably not be available."

"Security is going to be a problem, keeping the roads open, quarantines will be in effect in different areas, perhaps in the schools as well, and many people will be isolated," she said.

"This could be the plague of the 21st century," she said.