Plan developed for influenza pandemic

Meghann Rise

Meghann Rise

Five major organizations in Brookings County have come together and have been preparing the community for a possible influenza pandemic.

In 2006, the City of Brookings, the Brookings Health System, SDSU, the Brookings chapter of the American Red Cross and Brookings County Emergency Management partnered up to discuss preparing Brookings for a possible influenza pandemic.

According to the Center for Disease Control’s Web site, a pandemic occurs when a strain of the influenza virus emerges and is able to infect and be passed easily between humans. Because the virus is new, humans have little to no immunity against it, potentially causing a worldwide epidemic, or pandemic. The world now faces influenza A (H5N1), also known as the avian flu.

Caused by avian influenza viruses, avian flu occurs naturally among birds. However, this virus is highly contagious among birds, and can infect domestic birds like chickens, ducks and turkeys and kill them. The U.S. poultry industry has been proactive in testing their poultry, says professor Kim Cassel.

“The industry found a low virulent strain of the virus in a flock of chickens,” Cassel said “They didn’t take any chances and killed the chickens.”

The fear is not the presence of the virus in birds; it is the switch from bird-to-human infection, to human-to-human infection. According to the CDC’s Web site, there are three known subtypes of the virus circulating in humans. Influenza viruses are constantly changing and could potentially evolve into a virus that will spread easily among humans.

Cassel said the avian flu is circulating in many countries. Indonesia has an 80 percent mortality rate, and 66 cases have been documented in Egypt. The virus also appears to be skipping the older and younger generations, which is abnormal for most influenza outbreaks.

“If a pandemic breaks out,” Cassel said, “the generation that will be most affected is the 20 to 40-year-olds.”

Throughout history, there has been a pandemic nearly every 100 years, and the last serious epidemic was the 1918 Spanish flu. The Spanish flu claimed the lives of millions, and spread quickly between humans.

If a pandemic breaks out, the committee has prepared Brookings in various ways. Triage sites have been chosen for the treating of infected individuals, security in the county has been set up and plans have been made for dealing with mass casualties. Businesses like Daktronics have also contributed, by storing extra cots, IV poles, food and water.

“It isn’t a question of if this is going to happen,” Cassel said, “it’s a matter of when.”

The only thing communities can do is be prepared. Because SDSU makes up such a large part of the community, a committee made up of faculty and other staff has set up a plan. Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Doug Wermedal is a member of the committee. He said there are three phases to a pandemic, and phase one is in progress. Right now the university is monitoring what is happening in the world and making sure the virus has not spread to the U.S.

Phase two involves the arrival of the virus in the U.S., in which the university has stockpiled food and water and has an aggressive education campaign in mind. The education campaign involves simple things like washing hands frequently, not touching faucets and door handles and utilizing the alcohol dispensers dispersed throughout campus.

Phase three is the spread of the virus to the Midwest. Once the virus hits the Midwest area, the university will then decide what course of action should be taken. Possible solutions are ending a semester early, starting a semester late or closing the campus temporarily. Communication methods have also been tested to make sure students can be reached en masse.

Junior art education major Aubrey Vanderbush is glad the university is taking action.

“I think it is good to be prepared for something like this,” Vanderbush said, “I don’t think a lot of people know about this situation, and it is good to have preparation in case something actually happens.”

Right now, the Center for Disease Control is monitoring a new virus; the swine flu. Cassel said the swine flu is a respiratory disease caused by influenza A that regularly causes outbreaks in pigs. Pigs can be infected by swine influenza, human or avian influenza. When these different viruses infect pigs, the genes can swap and morph into a new virus that is a mixture of all three influenzas. The current swine flu outbreak is due to human-to-human transmission, not swine-to-human.

“The 2009 swine flu is a new virus that is a mixture of human, swine and avian viruses,” Cassel said.

However, it does not contain the deadly avian flu virus (H5N1). The case reported on the SDSU campus earlier this year is not correlated with this current outbreak. The committee has continued to monitor the situation, and will act accordingly.

The committee recently created a new Web site,, where citizens can go to learn how to make a survival kit, and set up a plan with family members.