Conference focuses on influenza pandemic preparation

By Michael Eck | Joint Task Force Civil Support Public Affairs | March 24, 2006

FORT MONROE, Va..-- Joint Task Force Civil Support hosted representatives from more than 50 federal, state and local agencies for a two-day conference that began March 22 and was designed to bring medical examiners, first responders, and a host of mortuary affairs specialists together in an effort to identify problems, discuss challenges, and develop recommendations that might be implemented in the event of an influenza pandemic in the United States.

“The focus of this working group is to examine the effects, issues, and ways to prepare for any pandemic influenza event,” said John Nesler, JTF-CS mortuary affairs planner.
“The current information about the Avian Influenza is a clear reinforcement to the importance of our work.”

JTF-CS, a standing joint task force under U.S. Northern Command, hosted the conference as a result of decisions made during a USNORTHCOM Pandemic Influenza Exercise held in January at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. At that conference, attendees “analyzed topics such as public health care, maintaining civil order and providing continuity of government and private operations in case of widespread infection and worker absenteeism.”

Since March of 2003, Avian Flu has spread to more than 96 countries throughout the world. The avian flu virus has been responsible for more than 103 human deaths and infected at least 184 people, according to the World Health Organization.

No human-to-human cases have yet been confirmed, and there have been no cases of avian flu in birds or in humans, reported in the United States or Canada.
The conference began with a presentation on the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. During the period 1918-1919 more than 675,000 people died in the United States as a result of the Spanish Influenza. Of those, more than 200,000 were recorded in October 1918 alone. Worldwide, the Spanish influenza was responsible for nearly 40 million deaths.

In the HHS Pandemic Plan released in Nov 2005, HHS estimates about 1.9 million deaths would occur in the U.S. if a severe, 1918-like pandemic were to occur. If a milder pandemic, similar to the 1957 and 1968 pandemics, were to occur, they estimate approximately 209,000 deaths in the United States.

Death rates are determined by four factors: the number of people who become infected, the virulence of the virus, the underlying characteristics and vulnerability of affected populations and the availability and effectiveness of preventive measures, according to Health and Human Services.

"By studying the impact of the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic we can better prepare for the realities of the next pandemic," said Navy Captain Jeffrey Timby, JTF-CS Command Surgeon. "There are always lessons to learn."

During the conference, topics discussed included morgue operations, identification and planning, family assistance, funeral services, final disposition, and scene operations.
This conference goes a long way toward preparing agencies for handling the worst case situation.

“Preparedness is a state, local, community, and individual responsibility, said Bill Hall, HHS Public Affairs Officer. “As a nation, the U.S. is not as prepared as it should be for a pandemic. We are more prepared today than we were yesterday and will be more prepared tomorrow than we are today.”

Nonetheless, HHS has been holding pandemic planning summits in states across the country. They have held similar summits in about half of all states so far and will have completed all summits later this spring. HHS has also provided a wealth of preparedness information for many sectors of society, including planning checklists, on www.pandemicflu.gov. Finally, HHS is distributing $350 million to states to help with developing their pandemic plans and exercising those plans.

JTF-CS is tasked with planning and integrating the Department of Defense support to a lead federal agency in the event of a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, or High-yield explosive incident. JTF-CS must also be prepared to respond and provide command and control over the designated DoD forces who are called in to assist the designated lead federal agency.