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Taking on a flu pandemic

New task force plans for disaster response

Peter Fiedler, Boston University's vice president for administrative services and co-chair of the new Pandemic Flu Task Force. Photo by Fred Sway.

Boston University’s Pandemic Flu Task Force has taken on the challenge of planning for the unthinkable — formulating the steps BU could take in response to a worldwide flu pandemic.

Formed earlier this spring, the task force is cochaired by Peter Fiedler, vice president for administrative services, and David Ozonoff, a School of Public Health professor and chairman of the department of environmental health. It holds its second meeting today.

“A lot of the problems you could get are not about bodies piling up,” says Ozonoff. “Let’s say nobody dies, but 40 percent of your workforce is out sick for a long period of time. BU is like a small city, and a lot of the services that support the University may shut down.”

While the flu of 1918 killed tens of millions and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 2 million and 7.4 million could die in a new pandemic, the task force’s goal, according to Ozonoff, is addressing the massive disruption that would accompany a major flu outbreak. If large numbers of people fall ill, for instance, critical infrastructure, such as transportation or the delivery of food and fuel, could weaken or fail.

“It’s almost an inconceivable issue. You just don’t want to think these things can happen,” says Fiedler. “But some of the best minds in the medical community think this is something we need to be prepared for.”

In addition to Fiedler and Ozonoff, the task force includes 13 high-ranking members of the University administration, among them Kenn Elmore, the dean of students; Marilyn Walsh, director of employee relations in the Office of Human Resources; and Marc Robillard, director of the Office of Housing. 

Fiedler poses a few of the many questions BU leaders might have to answer quickly in the midst of a public health crisis: “Do we shut down? Do we cancel classes? Do we send kids home? Do we turn buildings into quarantine facilities? Do we restrict international students from coming to Boston University?”

After meeting throughout the summer, the task force will write a report of “best practices” to be reviewed by University President Robert Brown and then tested by BU’s Emergency Response Team, which coordinates the University’s general response to emergency situations, from blizzards to chemical spills to terrorist attacks.

“We’d assume a reported outbreak of flu and rapid spread of infection, and open the University’s emergency command center,” Fiedler says. “Then we’d throw in confusion factors such as a shutdown of the MBTA or a water source contamination.”

“These drills always give you areas where there’s room for improvement,” says Peter Schneider, a task force member and director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, which oversees emergency response planning. Schneider says BU’s emergency planners have also been working closely with the Boston Public Health Commission and state and federal authorities, whose directives in the case of a crisis would help guide the University’s actions. Nevertheless, he admits, with so many factors and possible scenarios, no amount of planning will enable BU to prepare for every eventuality.

“The only logical thing to do is to take some of the big issues and let’s start to plan them,” he says. “Let’s get a group going that knows each other well and get the response system in place.”

Flu viruses mutate constantly, and a pandemic could be triggered if a virus emerges that is both easily spread between humans and that few people have any natural immunity for. So far, much of the focus among public health scientists has been on the avian flu, known as H5N1, which since 2003 has infected 228 people and caused 130 deaths, mostly in Asia, according to WHO. Nearly all of these cases involved people who lived or worked in close proximity to diseased birds. Although there have been a few cases where a person appears to have caught avian flu from another person, Ozonoff says it is not yet easily transmissible between humans.

The task force plans to put up a Web site as soon as possible that will detail its work and include links to information about the flu and to relevant public health agencies.

“The idea of pandemic flu is a very large and unpredictable concept that’s hard to get your arms around,” says Fiedler. “There’s a spooky component to it that frightens people and can lead to panic.” To combat that fear, he says, “you have to be straight with people and matter-of-fact about how you present this issue.”

 “I don’t want to scare people,” he adds. “I just want people to know that we take this very seriously.”