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Pandemic Workshop: Is the Science Workforce Prepared for Avian Flu?
SAN FRANCISCO--In the aftermath of the 1918 "Spanish Flu" pandemic, Yale University counted itself lucky with only three campus deaths, and Yale's president commended the "patriotic readiness of the ladies of New Haven who, trained and untrained, rendered services in the emergency."
Unfortunately, Yale and other research institutions around the country will need a more comprehensive plan to deal with the next flu pandemic, said Stephanie Spangler, deputy provost for biomedical and health affairs at Yale, at a Saturday AAAS workshop on pandemic preparedness for the research workforce.
Sponsored by AAAS's Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program and its Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, the workshop brought together emergency planners at major universities, industry and government labs to discuss how they are preparing for a possible pandemic of the H5N1 flu, which has infected nearly 300 people in Asia and Africa so far. Mark Frankel, head of the Scientific Freedom program, said the workshop was unique in that it "specifically addressed the impact of flu on researchers, the core of AAAS's membership, rather than public preparedness."
Experts suggest that research institutions, like many other businesses, would face manpower shortages and damage to infrastructure during a pandemic flu outbreak. For instance, Yale's emergency plans assume that only 40 percent of their workforce would be able to work during a pandemic, Spangler said. Researchers could find their labs without electricity, food or workers for weeks, which could destroy fragile biological samples in freezers and experimental animal colonies that have been carefully cultivated for decades.
In cities with a major university or medical center, preparedness planners are counting on researchers and clinicians who are not ill or isolated at home to take care of the sick, fill in for absent workers, communicate with the public and in the case of some laboratories, continue working on experiments that might be critical to limiting the flu's spread. In some cases, these researchers might be torn between their obligations to their institutions and emergency recruitment by state and federal officials.
"The news has been quiet" about the avian flu recently, but small outbreaks are still occurring and the death rate is high, said Joseph Perpich, president of JGPerpich, LLC, an educational and professional services company in biomedical and behavioral sciences. Perpich noted that more than 60 percent of people infected with avian flu have died, compared to a rate of 1 to 2 percent with the notorious 1918 flu.
Flu is an underestimated threat, according to Carol Ley, director of occupational medicine at the 3M company. "When people talk about, maybe we don't need to worry about a pandemic, well, in Minnesota so far this year we've had five deaths from traditional influenza, three children under the age of 10 and two adults in their 40s," she said.
The AAAS organizers drew up a chilling week-by-week scenario of the spread of pandemic flu in the United States that Perpich and the other panelists used to guide their discussions. With the help of a lively back-and-forth with their audience, the panelists identified some key sticking points in current preparedness plans.
On the good news side of things, the avian flu scare has made many institutions review their entire emergency plan, said Earle Holland, director of research communications at Ohio State University. "We use this basically as an excuse to look at the larger issue of institutional preparedness for such events," he said.
"I will say it's been eye-opening to work with entities that we consider to be key partners, to explore their assumptions about us and about what they're going to provide us," Spangler said about local, state and federal agencies.
James Seward, medical director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, reported that his labs have better infrastructure support as a result of pandemic planning, but are lagging when it comes to helping individual researchers make their own preparedness plans. "You really don't have a business continuity plan until you get each one of those people engaged...in thinking about what their side of the equation is," he noted.
For instance, individual researchers might not take kindly to being told that their labs have been shut down in a pandemic emergency, so early preparation could "reduce the outrage factor when it actually happens," Seward said.
Other concerns raised during the discussion included training researchers for other jobs in an emergency, dealing with students and parents in the event that universities close down, negotiating the different demands of federal and state governments, and restoring the research workforce after the pandemic has subsided.
There is always the possibility that the best-laid plans will be abandoned in a real emergency, the speakers admitted. After one emergency drill at a3M Chicago office, complete with threatening gunmen, Ley asked the office supervisor how the preparedness plan had helped.
"She said, 'It was one of the thickest documents we could find, and it held the back door open for us so we could all run out,'" Ley recalled ruefully.
Workshop participants also pointed out that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's own pandemic preparedness drill, carried out a few weeks earlier, was derailed by a more familiar threat: an approaching snowstorm.
18 February 2006