The often mentioned, rarely explained, avian influenza virus has spurred concern and preparation within the medical community and public health services. Now its potential to mutate has moved into the forefront. Many citizens assuage their fears of a viral pandemic with the belief that avian influenza will follow in the footsteps of its hubbub-inducing virus brother, SARS, and boil the conversation about the dangers of the virus down to unnecessary panic, but TCU officials are still preparing.
In early January, campus officials created a task force to begin planning for the possibility of a pandemic, or worldwide outbreak.
Randal Cobb, TCU safety director, serves on the task force, which he said is compiled of people on campus with knowledge that would be helpful if the virus were to virus mutate. Among the representatives are people from the Health Center, the nursing department, the police department and the athletic department.
According to the World Health Organization, “Avian influenza, or ‘bird flu,’ is a contagious disease of animals caused by viruses that normally infect only birds and, less commonly, pigs.”
The virus is spreading rapidly in birds, and based on migration patterns, it is predicted that the United States could experience bird flu as early as June, said Lorrie Adams, safety officer for Harris Methodist HEB Hospital.
“If it comes in through poultry, it will be a relatively small-scale problem,” Adams said.
The current worldwide concern is over whether the virus will mutate into one that is airborne, and therefore, contagious.
The mortality rate in birds is high, but it does not easily infect humans, said Giridhar Akkaraju, an assistant biology professor.
“By exchanging genes, however, there is possibility that a new form of the virus may come up that can infect humans easily and cause the high mortality of bird flu, this time in humans,” Akkaraju said.
The campus task force is operating under the assumption that the virus will mutate and begin spreading human from to human, Cobb said, adding that the task force plans include treatment, containment and faculty and staff cross training.
The committee has taken information from other universities and local government agencies and adapted the information to TCU’s needs, Cobb said.
TCU is working with the Tarrant County Public Health Department to develop the plans.
On a national level, the United States government is developing a public health plan, said Ronald Blanck, former surgeon general of the U.S. Army.
If the virus mutates into one that is easily transmitted between humans and simultaneously retains its lethality, “millions and millions would become ill, despite our best efforts,” said Blanck, who is currently the president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.
In the case of a pandemic, hospitals would require extensive equipment, such as ventilators, but most are financially unable to stock the necessary equipment when the year-round need is less severe, he said..
Hospitals prepare for any kind of epidemic, Adams said, but they “run at capacity, so to get anything above and beyond is difficult.”
“If it does mutate, there will be high needs of respiratory protection,” Adams said. “Ventilators are hard to get, expensive to keep, and require qualified staff to run them.”
But while SARS sent many citizens to buy protective masks, Blanck said there is no need for alarm at this point, suggesting people do the same as they would to prepare for any kind of natural or man-made disaster.
“Have a stockpile of food and water, a full tank of gas in your car, and have an emergency evacuation plan,” Blanck said. “Other than that, there isn’t anything we need to do at this point.
“The worst case is really terrible, but it is just that, a worst case. The likelihood is something less than that.