Southwest Georgia, which so far remains free of confirmed cases of the novel H1N1 influenza virus also known as Swine Flu, is unlikely to be affected by the World Health Organization's declaration that the globe is in the grips of a pandemic.
"By formally declaring today that a pandemic is underway, WHO is telling pharmaceutical companies to fast-track vaccine development and production," explained Southwest Health District Health Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant. "In addition, the declaration that we are at Pandemic Phase 6 means that countries that have not yet activated their pandemic plans will do so."
The United States, where the virus was detected in April, is already implementing components of its pandemic plan, and Georgia and Southwest Health District are continuing preparedness and response activities, Grant said.
"This upgrade from Phase 5 to Phase 6 does not signal that the novel H1N1 virus has become more severe," added Southwest Health District Emergency Preparedness Director Julie Miller. "A pandemic is declared when human-to-human transmission has occurred in more than one continent. For some time now, the World Health Organization has been trying to determine whether the cases showing up in countries outside of North America were the result of travelers bringing the infection in or whether it is spreading within communities. The WHO leadership now feels it has evidence of widespread community activity."
Southwest Health District ramped up its pandemic-related activities more than a month ago, opening an Emergency Operations Center, fine-tuning preparedness procedures and readying staff and partners for a full-blown response. Once it became clear that most people infected with H1N1 were experiencing mild illnesses and widespread school closings and other stringent measures were unnecessary, the District deactivated the Emergency Operations Center, but continued surveillance, education and planning activities, Miller said.
"As of today, Georgia had 41 confirmed cases, with no deaths," she said. "Southwest Georgia has been blessed so far in that we haven't had any confirmed cases of H1N1. For now, there is no reason for us to step up our activities. However, we know that could change at any time."
Other areas have not been as fortunate, Miller pointed out. "New York was particularly hard hit and was one of the first places in the U.S. to close schools," she said. "But Georgia also experienced an outbreak in Henry County that caused a school to cancel classes."
Grant said it is too soon to tell how severe the pandemic will be. "This particular virus is something we have never seen before, and we are studying it and tracking how it spreads. One concern is that it could return during regular flu season like the Spanish Flu did in the 1918 Pandemic. That pandemic occurred in three waves â" a mild one in the spring, then a deadly one in the fall, followed by one more wave in 1919," Grant said.
"Will this pandemic act like that one? We hope not, but we would be remiss if we didn't remain vigilant and prepare," added Miller. "The World Health Organization's declaration that we are experiencing a pandemic is not a reason to panic, but it does add urgency to preparedness activities. Individuals, families, businesses, governmental entities, schools and churches should be developing or tweaking their pandemic flu plans now."
Checklists, templates and other pandemic flu preparedness material can be accessed free online at www.southwestgeorgiapublichealth.org; www.pandemicflu.gov; and www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/; or by calling your county health department.