Pam Whiting

Global flu pandemic a question of when, not if

March 20, 2008

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By Diane Luckow

Over the past 300 years, influenza pandemics killing millions of people worldwide have broken out every 35 to 40 years — and we’re in year 40.

That’s why Pam Whiting, director of health and counselling services, is spearheading a pandemic planning initiative to prepare for and cope with widespread illness among students, staff and faculty.

Whiting says the big threat is influenza A-H5N1, or bird flu, which is spreading in avian populations throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. As of September 2007, 200 of the 328 people who have contracted this illness have died — a 61-per-cent fatality rate.

Pandemics vary in severity but typically spread quickly and occur in two or three waves of infection. A pandemic can last from a few months to for more than a year.

According to B.C. Centre for Disease Control prevalence estimates, 5,000 -13,000 students, 220-500 faculty and 320-800 staff members at SFU who could be infected during a flu pandemic, although not all of them would necessarily become ill.

Whiting’s planning sub-committees, together with the emergency management committee, have identified essential university services and are now examining how to maintain business continuity.

There are numerous issues. They include assessing illness levels and establishing protocols to deal with deaths on campus, students in international programs, international students on campus, curriculum interruptions, campus closures and the provision of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.

"The biggies are infection control, communications planning and business continuity," says Whiting.

Later this year, she says planning will focus on developing individual faculty and departmental plans. The final plan, she says, will become part of the university’s overall emergency plan because "it’s not a matter of if, it’s when."

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