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Most people are familiar with seasonal
influenza, or as it is more commonly called, "the flu." The virus makes
hundreds of thousands of people sick every year. Seasonal influenza can be
extremely dangerous for some, particularly individuals whose immune systems
have been weakened by age or illness. But for most healthy people, the flu is
usually not life- threatening.
Pandemic influenza is another matter.
Pandemic flu occurs when a new strain of influenza emerges that can be
transmitted easily from person to person and for which humanity has little or
no natural immunity. In the case of an influenza pandemic, the virus
spreads rapidly through the global community, making millions sick, stressing
healthcare systems and potentially killing millions of people worldwide.
While the next global pandemic hasn't
materialized yet, stories of a potential "bird flu" outbreak still make the
headlines. Influenza is a threat that isn't going away and one Southern
Baptists needs to take seriously.
What is Influenza
Influenza is an infectious disease
caused by a virus. Some strains of influenza affect humans exclusively, while
others occur naturally in birds or other mammal species. Some flu viruses
infect multiple species. Unfortunately, new influenza viruses are
constantly being produced by genetic mutation.
The well publicized "bird flu", for
example, is an avian influenza caused by a virus that occurs naturally in
birds. In 1997, an influenza outbreak occurred in Hong Kong when a strain
of bird flu infected 18 people, raising concerns about the virus's spread from
birds to humans. About half the people who caught this strain of
influenza died. Scientists worry about viruses like this one that could
spread very quickly and have a high mortality rate. Fortunately, in the
Hong Kong outbreak, the virus was not easily transmitted from human to human
through something as simple as a sneeze, for example, and transmission from
birds to people was rare.
In a pandemic, the virus will spread
rapidly through the population, infecting millions. Three years ago, the
world had a preview of the disruption an influenza pandemic could cause when a
previously unknown virus called SARS appeared in rural China. When an infected
doctor carried the virus out of China, it spread to Vietnam and Singapore and
Canada within a month. Before long, the SARS virus had spread to nearly 30
countries on six continents. It infected more than 8,000 people and killed
nearly 800. According to one estimate, the SARS outbreak cost the Asian Pacific
region about $40 billion.
Historical records show that influenza
pandemics occur with some regularity. About 30 influenza pandemics have
been recorded; three of which occurred in the last century.
Pandemic Death Toll Since
The worst of these pandemics occurred in 1918 at the end of
World War I. Sometimes referred to as the Spanish Flu, this virus strain
was unusual in that it killed many young adults and otherwise healthy victims.
People without symptoms were struck suddenly and, within hours, were too feeble
to walk. Many died the next day.
The illness was so prevalent in some
areas that most everyday life activities were stopped due to illness, death,
and to prevent further spread of the virus. Some communities closed all stores
or required customers to place their orders outside the store for filling.
Local governments in the United States held that any type of gathering of
people, with "the mixing of bodies and sharing of breath in crowded rooms," was
dangerous. Nonessential meetings were prohibited. Saloons, dance halls, and
cinemas were closed and public funerals prohibited since they were deemed
"unnecessary." Health care systems were overwhelmed with many communities
reporting that there were no health care workers to tend the sick and
insufficient able bodied grave diggers to bury the dead.
to Southern Baptist Churches
The impact of an influenza pandemic on
Southern Baptist churches could be substantial. A serious outbreak would cause
significant absenteeism among staff, challenging the church's ability to remain
open and to continue to minister within the community. Traditional church
services would be dramatically altered as human contact would be limited and
mass gatherings cancelled.
Many "at-risk" populations which the
church traditionally serves, such as children, elderly, and the homeless, may
be among the hardest hit by the virus. Economically-disadvantaged and
single parent households may struggle to make ends meet if they must stay home
to care for a loved one or if schools and businesses are ordered closed.
As local governments plan to cope with a pandemic, Southern Baptists should be
engaged in planning and preparedness to support emergency response efforts.
In addressing these issues, one might
consider the following:
- Establish mandatory staff leave for
ill employees (or those caring for ill family members). This will reduce
the possibility of spreading the infection among healthy co-workers.
- Adopt "leave" policies that do not
penalize workers for absenteeism during a pandemic when it is related to
personal illness or care for sick family members.
- Be prepared for heavy absenteeism in
jobs that interact with "at-risk" populations, such as children, the elderly,
or homeless. Workers may fear that working with these groups places them
at a higher risk for exposure to infection.
- Be ready to temporarily suspend
physical contact, including shaking hands and hugs, as part of church
- Limit mass gatherings. This
may include cancelling Sunday services, weekday events at the church, weddings,
- Devise alternate methods of
providing spiritual care, particularly to those who have lost loved ones due to
the illness. This may include offering church services via the Internet
or television and creating phone networks of prayer partners.
- Develop contingency plans to care
for dependent populations, including those in resident care facilities, such as
homeless shelters, assisted living, and ARC facilities. Develop sanitary
practices to reduce the spread of infection within these facilities and
procedures to address the needs of sick individuals.
- Be prepared to provide financial aid
to the poor who are unable to work and need emergency income for housing,
medicine and other essential needs.
- Plan with local emergency management
and public health officials prior to an outbreak. Predetermine, as much
as possible, the role and expectations for the church.
- Be prepared to support mass care
efforts, particularly to the needy and home bound.
- Consult with local officials on the
availability of priority vaccinations for emergency and critical needs
What Can I Do To
The Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention have advised that some of the best ways to prepare for a pandemic
are the same steps to prepare for other emergencies. Stay informed and
build a family disaster preparedness kit with the supplies your family will
need during an emergency.
As a church leader, educate
others. The Bible says "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your
care, serving as overseers - not because you must, but because you are
willing." (1 Peter 5:2). One of the duties of a shepherd is to warn
the flock under his care of danger. Educate your congregation and your
community about the truth and myths of pandemic flu and encourage them to
develop their own emergency plan.
Finally, remember that influenza, like
many other illnesses, is primarily spread by human to human contact.
Washing your hands frequently, particularly after shaking other people's hands,
can significantly reduce the spread of the disease. Avoid sharing
personal care items, such as a drinking straw. Cover your mouth when you
sneeze, but if you use your hand, wash it immediately. Too often people
won't and every surface they touch next becomes contaminated.
Following these steps will protect you
not just from influenza, but a myriad of other germs and infections.
It is difficult to predict when the
next influenza pandemic will occur, or its severity. But wherever and
whenever a pandemic does start, it places everyone around the world at
risk. During an outbreak, early identification of the virus and limiting
the spread of the virus will be critical to saving lives. As President George
Bush said in a November 1, 2005 speech on the nation's pandemic flu strategy,
"A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire: If caught early it might be
extinguished with limited damage; if allowed to smolder undetected it can grow
to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it."
Helpful Web Sites
Citizens Corps and Homeland Security
1. Bush, President George W.
Speech on Pandemic Flu Strategy. November 1, 2005.
2. Pandemicflu.gov website.
January 5, 2007.
3. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. Pandemic Influenza Pre-Event Message Maps. January/February
Thanks to The Salvation Army for permission to use much of this
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