HHS Web seminar touts personal pandemic preparedness

Sep 25, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today hosted a live webcast to teach laypeople and community groups how to prepare their homes and families for a pandemic, and they fielded a range of questions, from the size of food stockpiles to elbow bumps versus high fives in sports settings.

The HHS program was the sixth in a series that began in March with sessions aimed at state pandemic planners. Other webcasts have addressed topics such as school closures and implications for home healthcare organizations.

Admiral Joxel Garcia, assistant secretary of health for HHS, and Richard Benjamin, MD, chief medical officer for the American Red Cross, warned that a pandemic is unlike any other disaster, because the disease strikes many locations simultaneously. "It's like 50 hurricane Katrinas happening at the same time," Benjamin said.

Benjamin urged those who haven't begun their personal pandemic preparations to start by thinking through four scenarios: if schools closed, if a family member was ill, if wage earners couldn't work, or if people were urged to stay in their homes. He said government and nonprofit groups have useful resources that cover personal pandemic preparation; for example, the Red Cross has a guide for caring for sick family members.

The Red Cross's role now is to build awareness, but during a pandemic the organization plans to help distribute food and supplies to the homebound and ensure an adequate blood supply, Benjamin said. A pandemic will diminish the blood supply, and he said the Red Cross will continue to rely on donors. "You can help by getting used to giving blood now," he added.

Two members of PandemicPrep.org, a nonprofit group based in St Louis, told viewers that grassroots pandemic preparedness organizing doesn't need to take a lot of time or expense, but it can yield benefits beyond just pandemic preparedness.

Tim Woerther, the group's co-chair and mayor of Wildwood, Mo., said, "This brings together people who don't normally talk," such as people from faith-based organizations, education, government, and business.

Near the end of the webcast, the speakers fielded questions submitted by online viewers. One viewer asked why different groups recommend different stockpiling amounts; some recommend 2 weeks' worth of food, water, and supplies, while some advise up to 6 months.

Benjamin said the Red Cross advises at least 2 weeks, "but if you could do more, that would be a wonderful thing," he said. Coming up with a stockpiling recommendation is difficult, he said; a pandemic wave lasts up to 3 months and stores would be severely affected, but probably not as long as the entire 3 months.

"Six to 12 months would be wonderful, but that's probably not practical for most people," Benjamin said.

Another viewer asked if the new ritual of athletes trading elbow bumps rather than high fives might reduce the spread of flu and cold viruses. Garcia said, "That's a good question. Just make sure you wash your hands after sports."

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