U.S., other countries preparing for possible deadly flu outbreak

| 8/27/2004

U.S. officials are developing plans to deal with a possible epidemic – or even larger outbreak – of the flu, The Associated Press reported recently.

Most significant to truckers: Among the first protective measures likely to be taken are travel restrictions, Dr. Julie Gerberding of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The AP.

The type of massive outbreak feared by health officials is called a pandemic. The last major flu pandemic, which occurred in 1918 and 1919, killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide, according to Stanford University – more than were killed by World War I, and more than died during the Black Plague that started in the year 1347.

The World Health Organization estimates that if a new flu pandemic were to occur, it could kill between 2 million and 7.5 million people worldwide. Administration documents revealed by The New York Times indicate that number could include an estimated 89,000 to 207,000 Americans.

Roughly 36,000 Americans die each year from the flu. Particularly hard hit are the very young, very old and those with respiratory problems.

Health officials are paying particularly close attention to a strain of flu in Asia called bird flu. If that virus mutates, as flu viruses frequently do, and crosses over to humans, a pandemic could quickly follow. The World Health Organization said greater global mobility and communications, as well as urbanization and overcrowded conditions could help spread a flu pandemic quickly around the world.

Health experts say truckers face a particular challenge in avoiding the flu.

“Because they go into so many places – not just truck stops, you’re talking about into shippers and into receivers – they’re around a lot of people,” said nurse Sharon Mitchell. “They touch doorknobs, they use telephones – which are some of the biggest offenders (in the spread of viruses).”

Mitchell is a nurse and vice president of American Business Medical Services, a clinic that has a location inside Jessup TA Truck Stop near Baltimore. But many more truckers know her as Nurse Red, her screen name on the TruckNet forum, where she takes questions from and dispenses medical information to thousands of truckers.

Prevention is the key to fighting the heightened risk truckers face. Mitchell also stressed that before flu season begins, truckers should get a flu shot. Truck drivers should also use common sense precautions, such as avoiding people with obvious flu symptoms, and washing their hands with anti-bacterial soaps or gels.

Vaccines are important in preventing flu, but not foolproof. Also, people with certain food allergies, such as allergies to eggs, cannot take flu shots.

Each year, scientists try to determine which strains of flu are most likely to occur, and create a vaccine to fight those strains. One of the greatest pandemic dangers is that a new strain will develop that is not covered by that year’s vaccine, leaving even the vaccinated unprotected.