Pandemic Preparedness

“Even if a 1918 scenario does unfold, 98 out of every 100 of us are going to get through this at the other end. The point is how do we get society through it?”

– Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy,
University of Minnesota

When a virus dubbed H5N1 crossed the species barrier to infect 18 people with avian influenza in Hong Kong in 1997, public health officials worldwide grew alarmed. Could this be the advent of the next flu pandemic?

It was easy to see the outlines of a disaster in the making. With global travel at an all time high, a just-in-time economy depending on open borders and seamless production, and crowded cities around the globe, rapid spread of a new pandemic strain would be inevitable. Major economic and social disruption would follow. In 2006, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office calculated that a severe pandemic could cause a 4.25 percent decline in U.S. gross domestic product (GDP.)

Although a pandemic form of avian influenza has so far not developed in people, many nations, states, communities and businesses recognized their vulnerability. Scientifically, it was never a question if a pandemic would occur. What nobody could know was when an influenza pandemic would strike and how severe it would be.

Major pandemic response plans were developed, often with the help of government funds. In the public, times of high interest were followed by pandemic fatigue, again followed by interest and concern.

As the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic illustrates well, preparedness efforts and response measures—the subject of this chapter–are  where most of the journalistic activity is—before, during and after a pandemic. This is where flu science hits the political realities, belief systems, bureaucracies and inequalities of the world, and where investigative, explanatory, enterprise and solid breaking-news journalism are most needed.

There are many questions to be answered. For example: How are local hospitals preparing to deal with a possible overflow of patients? Who is trying to cash in on the preparedness or pandemic activities? How come so many preparedness plans have little advice on responding to a milder pandemic, which still needs to be mitigated and dealt with? But also: Is the latest press release about an experimental vaccine or the health commissioner’s latest move really worth a story?

This chapter introduces the various levels of pandemic preparedness planning, from global to national and state to local. It lays out some major challenges businesses face and summarizes what individuals should know about risks and precautions in a pandemic. Also, we have added some story ideas. Don’t hesitate to post more, or share your questions and story links by posting comments on this site.