Monday, April 27, 2009

Pandemics Are Nothing to Sneeze At

For some people it's probably a big joke. 'Swine Flu', it just has a funny name, right? For others it's probably a case of wondering what all the fuss is about, since we are talking about a few dozen cases in the United States, and all of those are down around the border with Mexico, which has the real problem. So what's the big deal? Why all the headline stories in the newspaper and on television? And what's with all those empty stadiums this past weekend for all the big soccer matches down there south of the border? Well glad that you asked, because the topic of handling a pandemic, at least from a law enforcement perspective, is being addressed this year in one of the courses that I am teaching. The course, titled 'Crisis & Emergency Management', is a scenario-based course in which the police officers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are presented with four unusual situations, asked to place themselves in the scenario, and are guided as to how they should be expected to have to respond. They are also given information on some of the resources that would be coming to help in the situation from the government and other entities. One of the scenarios, in fact the final one that they are being presented, is a pandemic flu outbreak. How timely, huh? I can't tell you how many times that I have gotten that look in class. You know the one, the "You gotta be kidding me, this will never happen" look. Well as today's headlines are beginning to relate, pandemic outbreaks are not only things that happened in the distant past or the subjects of science fiction, but they are very real threats to our society and our world, and we need to be prepared and informed. A 'pandemic' is a breakout of an infectious disease that spreads through populations of humans or animals or both from person-to-person (animal to person, animal to animal) across large geographic regions, continents, and even around the world. There have been a number of pandemics to hit the world in recorded history. Many have heard of the 'Black Death' of 'bubonic plague' pandemic that struck in the 14th century and killed 20-30 million Europeans in just six years. In the 19th century, another plague outbreak began in China and spread all around the world, killing 10 million people in India. There were numerous outbreaks of 'cholera' in the 19th century, including an 1866 outbreak in our own country that killed some 50,000 Americans. Also here in the U.S., the 'Spanish flu' pandemic struck in 1918-1919, eventually spreading to all corners of the world and infecting up to 5% of the human population, with 20% of people feeling some effects. In six months, some estimates had the number of dead worldwide as 50 million, but others placed it at twice that number. As recently as 1957-58, the 'Asian flu' caused upwards of 70,000 deaths here in the U.S., and in 1968-69 the 'Hong Kong flu' killed 34,000 Americans. During the 1700's, at the time of the 'Thirty Years War', approximately 8 million Germans were wiped out by an outbreak of plague and typhus. Just as recently as 2003 the world reeled at the possibility of another pandemic called 'SARS', a highly contagious pneumonia type, but quick action around the world stopped its spread before it could become a pandemic. That illness was not eradicated, however, and could reemerge at any time. The bottom line is that there is nothing at all cute about 'Swine flu' despite its comical sounding name. It is an illness that draws that name because it is prevalent in swine or pig populations. This is a killer illness that at the very least can make a lot of people very ill. You need to pay close attention to the news on this pandemic, and take every precaution that public health authorities release as seriously as possible. In a worst case scenario here in America, we could see scenes such as played out in those Mexican football/soccer games this past weekend. What are known as 'social distancing methods' could well be put into effect, where large groups of people are kept apart from one another by methods such as closing schools, bars, restaurants, and other public gathering places and events such as pro sports games would perhaps be played, but in front of empty ballparks and arenas. We will see individuals placed into 'isolation', where they have been diagnosed with the illness and are kept away from others during their period of infectiousness. We would also likely see individuals, and possibly families, work places, or entire communities put into 'quarantine' where these have been in contact with individuals who are diagnosed as positive with the illness, until those folks in contact can be deemed illness-free. And if things ever get really bad due to a pandemic disease outbreak, you need to not only pay strict attention and follow along with strict adherence to public health and law enforcement authorities directions, but it couldn't hurt to toss in a prayer or two while you're at it, because hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are likely to end up dead.

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