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US Government Unveils Pandemic Flu Severity Index February 2, 2007

Posted by notapundit in US News.
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WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–U.S. health officials unveiled a “Pandemic Severity Index” Thursday aimed at forecasting the strength of the next flu pandemic in a manner similar to the system used to predict hurricane strength.

The Pandemic Severity Index contains five categories with a Category 1 pandemic being ranked as the least severe and Category 5 being the most severe. A pandemic similar to the 1918 pandemic would be ranked as a Category 5 and would be expected to kill more than 1.8 million Americans. A Category 1 pandemic would be an influenza outbreak that is in line with a severe, seasonal influenza outbreak and one that is predicted to kill fewer than 90,000 Americans. Seasonal influenza typically results in the deaths of about 36,000 people in the U.S. each year.

The Pandemic Severity Index is designed for local communities to determine what steps to take to slow the spread of a deadly flu virus, including closing schools for up to three months, urging businesses to let people work from home and canceling sporting events, concerts and other large public gatherings.

“Not all pandemics are equally severe,” said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the lead government agency behind the pandemic index that is included as part of a broader set of guidelines aimed at the community level for slowing the spread of the flu.

CDC officials recommend closing schools and day-care centers for up to three months in the event of a Category 4 or 5 pandemic but suggest a shorter one-month closing for a Category 2 or 3 outbreak. Such measures would ideally be implemented before a large flu outbreak is seen in a community.

More recent U.S. flu pandemics such as one in 1957 and 1968 would be considered Category 2 outbreaks. Recommendations for a Category 1 pandemic are similar to ones already in place for seasonal flu such as frequent hand-washing and staying home from work or school when people are sick.

Closing schools is aimed at cutting the number of likely deaths among children and reducing the spread of flu to other children and adults. About one-third of U.S. households have school-age children. Children are more susceptible to infection than adults and typically spread viruses more easily than adults often because they fail to cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing and don’t always wash their hands.

Gerberding says she realizes closing schools for an extended period has “a lot of downsides,” such as a ripple effect of parents having to stay home from work, which is why a three-month closure is recommended only in the event of a Category 4 or 5 pandemic. A pandemic would likely sweep through a community in six-to-eight weeks, based on models and research into past pandemics.

The Pandemic Severity Index wouldn’t be used unless an influenza strain develops that begins to circulate rapidly among humans. Pandemics are caused by new influenza strains to which humans have little or no immunity, causing more people to become sickened and die than what is seen with regular, or seasonal, influenza. Seasonal influenza is caused by viruses that have been routinely circulating among humans.

Pandemic-flu planning efforts have increased in the past few years since the emergence of the H5N1 avian influenza virus in Asia. Since 2003, the H5N1 strain has infected 270 people in 10 countries and resulted in 164 deaths, mostly in Asia. Most of the human cases have been caused by direct contact with infected poultry, but health experts are concerned that, if the virus mutates, it might be able to spread easily among humans and spark the next pandemic.

By Jennifer Corbett Dooren, Dow Jones Newswires

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