Preparedness efforts ramp up for possibility of flu pandemic, TB, salmonella, bird flu or other health disasters
When it comes to the possibility of a health emergency, there is no such thing as being too prepared, officials of the Buena Vista County Health Department say.
Whether it is bird flu, salmonella, an outbreak of some new flu strain or bioterrorism, health officials are pushing hard to be ready with responses they dearly hope they never will have to put into play.
The Trust for America's Health released a national "Ready or Not?" report Tuesday testing each state for preparedness - Iowa was given an above-average rank of 8 out of a possible 10 based on ten key indicators on how well officials are set to deal with disease outbreaks, natural disasters and bioterrorism.
Pam Bogue of BV County Public Health feels that local readiness compares favorably with anywhere in the nation.
"I think we do stack up, although there is always room to do even better," she says. "When you talk about possible disease outbreak, that is something we have been working on as one of our core miissions. We are already in the habit of researching things we see, looking for trends, trying to trace the causes and considering what we can do to prevent spread of communicable diseases."
It is impossible to predict if or when a health emergency could happen here, Bogue said.
The department is familiar with issues like tuberculosis exposure and salmonella outbreak, which have been seen in the community in recent years. E coli is another potential concern.
When people hear about bio-terrorism, they generally think of chemical attacks or contamination of the food supply, Bogue said, but the threat could well come from another direction.
"They have confirmed birds in China with bird flu, and it could be introduced to the U.S. as a biological attack, for example," she said. "There is a real potential for something like bird flu to mutate and become more dangerous to be passed to humans."
Experts are also concerned about the potential for a new flu pandemic. "We are overdue. This tends to be a cyclical thing, and it has been many years since we have seen a real pandemic, so experts are predicting this is a good possibility for the near future," Bogue said.
State officials confirmed Iowa's first flu case of the season Wednesday, in a young woman from eastern Iowa. They said it should serve as a reminder to get flu shots, wash hands frequently, and try to stay clear of others who are ill.
"We see things like smallpox and athrax on the news, and there is always the potential of those kind of threats, but I don't know that a bioterrorist would be as likely to target an area like this as opposed to an urban area. For those who want to do harm, they generally are looking for the most populated area possible. But anything is possible," Bogue says.
The good news is that medical labs have become more adept at responding to health emergency needs, and physicians better networked to share breaking health issues than any any time of past pandemic, she said.
Buena Vista is now part of a 16-county coalition that meets monthly to plan for responses to disease outbreak, bio-terror or disaster.
"We have been working on purchasing the items that could be needed during those times - working with county emergency management, the hospital and community health center. The cooperation here is very good," Bogue said.
Drills have also helped to hone the response skills. Last year, the nurses used a community flu vaccine clinic to stage a mock response to a disease outbreak, simulating the delivery of mass quantities of medicines to the public in the most efficient way possible.
This year public health is drilling to use a "node" system that would be put into play to distribute medication in case of a big outbreak - working on the logistics to travel to obtain medication and get it back to a community point to administer to the public.
There is even preliminary talk of public health nurses and the Iowa National Guard combining forces for a joint disaster response drill.
It is not a foreign concept to such nurses. Many took part in relief teams rushing to flooding sites in eastern Iowa earlier this year to provide health assessments to the public.
The local health department has also fine-tuned computerized data collection systems that would rapidly track an outbreak.
The Iowa Department of Health has been very proactive in preparedness, but lost a point in the national rankings for failing to have a Medical Reserve Corps, Bogue said. Iowa does have a program through Homeland Security that can mobilize nurses, but it currently does not meet all the requirments the "Ready or Not?" study was looking for.
Another point was lost for the state's ability to identify the source of foodborne illnesses - just 42 percent of the pathogen cases were correctly solved from 2004-06, below the national average.
However, Iowa officials say they correctly identified foodborne pathogens in illness cases at a much better rate more recently, solving three-fourths of the 17 incidents seen in 2007-08. Efforts are underway for more testing staff and an outbreak manual to improve response.
Locally, the effort is all about collaboration, and even more work is needed, Bogue suggests. "Every time we practice together, it helps."
"I don't want to see people alarmed, but I do want to see them prepared," Bogue said.
The department is launching a "20 Weeks of Preparedness" program. Starting with the county's own employees, it is encouraging families to prepare a disaster emergency kit and plan for their own homes."
The department hopes to take the process to other entities in the community soon, and members of the public who are interesting in creating such a kit may contact the department for information now.