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Health official discusses bird flu risk

The public would be better off turning to the World Health Organization (WHO) than tuning into the TV news for information about avian influenza, the deputy director of the WHO’s regional office told a Lehigh audience Wednesday night.

Dr. Joxel Garcia of the Pan American Health Organization kicked off Lehigh’s annual International Week in Sinclair Auditorium with the keynote address, “From Bioterrorism to Bird Flu: Current Biological Threats Facing our Society.” The talk drew Lehigh faculty, staff, and students, as well as members of the community, Moravian College students, and Cedar Crest College nursing students.

Garcia’s speech was accompanied by a slide show presentation highlighting the evolution of the Pan American Health Organization, the SARS epidemic, the avian influenza (more commonly known as bird flu), and pandemic prevention methods.

“I love to come and speak at universities,” Garcia said. “College freshmen are a large concern because they live in dorms which are a contact-to-contact environment for disease transmission. As a public health official I must convey to the youth that health issues should not be dismissed.”

Lehigh’s status as one of only six universities in the world to be fully recognized by the U.N. Department of Public Information as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) “gives us better access to senior officials and to the U.N.,” said Bill Hunter, director of Lehigh’s Office of International Students and Scholars and Global Union Director.

No pandemic yet

As the bird flu continues to receive widespread media coverage, public concern has grown. Garcia said the WHO is training many of its officers to start working with the media proactively to reduce potential panic.

“The public health leadership needs to make sure the public understands,” Garcia said. “We must be intellectual and educational in our pursuit to inform the public. Most importantly, we must assume that people don’t know the science and take simple informative steps to help everyone learn.”

Garcia practiced what he preached, teaching the audience about the crucial H5 N1cells involved in the bird flu. “The H is the part that attaches to cells within a host, which can shift and drift causing genetic mutations of the influenza. The N is the part that releases the influenza into the host. These are the most important because they possess all the qualities and elements to become the next pandemic.”

Currently, Garcia explained, the avian influenza is classified as being in stage three. That means there is human infection with a new subtype, but no human-to-human transmission so the influenza is not yet classified as a pandemic.

“I was not aware that the bird flu has not been classified as a pandemic,” Jessica Kramer, Global Union vice president, said. “It is important that people see public health views from a proper perspective because the media can tend to portray situations more dramatically than they are.”

Lessons from 1918

Many health officials and scientists have begun to compare the avian influenza with the Spanish Flu of 1918. (Read 1918 flu pandemic may offer lessons for today to learn about a Lehigh graduate student’s work in this area.)

Because there has been a pandemic every 10 to 15 years and a serious pandemic every 80 years, many fear that the bird flu will be the next serious health threat to our country.

“Although the mortality rate of the Spanish flu was very high, we must remember that the population was different during that time period as were the conditions of life,” Garcia said. “Today is a different time period, where we have different methods of traveling. Our technology is far more advanced, which means we have better systems to act if something happens.”

Garcia spoke of the 1918 flu pandemic as a benchmark for the most salient issue in his speech. “The majority of people who suffered from the 1918 Spanish flu were the youth,” Garcia said. “A part of controlling our current avian situation is making sure the young adults who have not shown a real interest in public health issues become more engaged in current threats facing our society.”

The Pan American Health Organization’s objectives for the flu response include offering technical cooperation from their staff to prepare the region for a pandemic, assisting other countries in public health education, and assisting other countries in supporting actions consistent with their educational and prevention methods.

The International Health Regulations were modified this past April for the first time since they were created in 1969 by the 192 countries of the World Health Organization. Garcia said these regulations provide the legal framework that protects our country from emergency or a pandemic.

“The U.S. is a federated nation, which can have tension between the federal, states, and local governments during a time of crisis,” Garcia said. “From a local angle, all powers from all outlets must work together to make a plan of action.”

Garcia cited the SARS epidemic as an example of how fast diseases can spread. “Diseases can take less than two days to move from country to country and the major concern with SARS was its rapid spread within a short time span,” Garcia said. “SARS was the first time when significant global alerts were necessary.”

Asiya Mohammed, Global Union treasurer, said that the SARS information during Garcia’s presentation fueled her desire to learn more about the bird flu. “If diseases can spread so quickly, I want to be aware of what I can do as an individual to make myself more aware of public health issues,” Mohammed said.

Garcia said the key to prevention against an epidemic is being prepared and aware of possible threats so a plan to minimize harmful consequences can be implemented. “It is impossible to completely prevent a pandemic, but it is possible to minimize its effects.” Garcia said.

Garcia spoke of the possibility for universities to become partners with the Pan American Health Organization to get the youth involved in raising awareness of public health and bioterrorism issues.

Garcia ended his speech discussing possible future pandemics. “A leading cause of death to watch out for is water contamination. The access and quality of water is diminishing and we should all be paying attention to this,” Garcia said. “Reemerging diseases should also be on the public’s radar, but it is more important to be aware of current issues.”

For a related story, see U.N. partnership opens door to bird flu conference.

--Andrea Tulcin

Posted on Thursday, November 10, 2005

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