Planning for a pandemic

York County health officials believe that in the event of a deadly flu pandemic, the federal government would not be able to come to the rescue.

Why? Because the flu would be every-where, leaving regional health operations to fend for themselves.

Thankfully, York County is working with health officials not only in South Carolina but also in Mecklenburg County across the state line to devise a plan to respond to such an emergency.

While the dictionary definitions of an epidemic and a pandemic are similar, the words mean distinctly different things to health experts. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, flu epidemics are relatively common. For example, CDC records show that flu reached epidemic levels nationwide for 10 weeks in a row during the 2004-2005 season.

During that period, nearly 9 percent of all deaths reported in 122 U.S. cities were due to influenza or flu-related pneumonia. But while the death rate was high enough to reach the threshold of an epidemic and while millions of Americans were sickened by the flu during this period, it did not come close to what would occur during a pandemic.

Health officials regard a pandemic as something of a global epidemic. The virus responsible would be a new strain, such as an avian flu strain that has migrated in a mutated form from fowl to people. And it would be unusually deadly.

Some researchers believe that it is not a question of whether the world will experience a widespread outbreak of avian flu but when. Avian flu already has sickened 373 people and killed 236 in Asia, Europe, the Near East and Africa. And, because of the global migratory habits of birds -- and the mobility of people -- the spread of the virus is virtually inevitable.

York County officials, who have been working since 2006 to organize a pandemic response plan, think a distribution site for medicine and supplies in Charlotte might be the best way to serve local residents in the event of an outbreak. Local officials also are working to ensure that enough people would be in place to distribute those supplies.

County health officials also are working to establish a database to record medical trends, such as symptoms reported by people seeking medical attention, and to keep track of the county's medical capabilities, such as the number of hospital beds available. Health officials also must map a plan for inhibiting contact among people during a pandemic. That could include prohibiting all public gatherings.

The world is better prepared now than in 1918, when an influenza epidemic killed an estimated 20 million people around the globe, including 548,000 in the United States. But there is no modern model for a flu pandemic.

It is reassuring, however, that state and local health officials take the possibility seriously and are making plans. We hope it never becomes necessary to implement those plans, but preparing for the worst is the best approach.