Even though it’s never really affected Houston, local officials say they’re still doing all they can to get the city ready for the potential of pandemic flu, an outbreak that could kill tens of thousands of people if left unchecked. As Houston Public Radio’s Jack Williams reports, health leaders want to be prepared just in case.
The best example of a relatively recent case of a flu pandemic was the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak that killed as many as 100 million people worldwide and a half a million in the United States alone. As recently as 1978, the Swine Flu killed about 8,000 in the U.S. A pandemic usually occurs when a strain of flu virus mutates and is passed from animals to humans. Pandemic flu has never really affected Houston, but Dr. David Persse, Houston’s Public Health Authority and director of the city’s EMS service says it could.
“We’ve been hearing about this pan-flu thing for a couple of years now and so the reaction to it is sort of waning and people may be sort-of dropping their guard. We’ve got to maintain our vigilance and preparation for pandemic flu because we know that it is coming. We don’t know when, but history has shown that it will come again. During the last century, we had four pandemics of varying severity, but another one is going to come.”
The threat of pandemic flu is no secret to the federal government, which has stockpiled millions of doses of flu vaccine and has multi-layered plans to deal with a pandemic if one ended up here. Most local jurisdictions like Houston are depending mostly on a federal response as their first line of defense. Jean Bennett is the senior regional emergency coordinator for the US Department of Health and Human Services.
“The federal government is preparing as aggressively as everyone else in the chain of command from here to there and has allocated lots of resources, dollars, personnel and experts to address the issue and so I don’t know that anyone, anywhere is ready, but we’re as ready as we can be at this point in time and are continuing to improve our readiness.”
Stephen Williams is the director the Houston Department of Health and Human Services and says because Houston is an international city, it’s more vulnerable than most when it comes to pandemic flu.
“Houston entertains a lot of international travel and also domestic travel and it’s pretty easy for people to go from one part of the world to another and we are pretty much a world-class city and so our aim is to make sure that we as a community are pretty much prepared.”
Local, state and federal health officials shared ideas about pandemic flu and how prepared the city is at a community summit.