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Health Unit stages “flu pandemic” emergency exercise

SIMCOE, ON, OCT. 23, 2008 – The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit staged a “table-top” exercise last week to test its ability to respond effectively to a flu pandemic.

Health Unit officials gathered in the board room and were given a hypothetical flu outbreak scenario that saw a deadly virus methodically spread from overseas into Haldimand and Norfolk Counties.

“The mock emergency gathered the key people at our Health Unit who will have to coordinate our response to a pandemic,” said Public Health Manager Karen Boughner, “The real value of the exercise was in fleshing out the details of how we would function day to day in the middle of this health crisis. It’s clear many of our staff would have to be diverted from regular programs to pandemic response.”

During a pandemic, the Health Unit would have to carry out a variety of tasks, including establishing vaccination clinics, liaising with hospitals and doctors, and maintaining ongoing communication with the public.

This is only the first of many exercises the Health Unit plans to carry out.

“Future exercises will involve other organizations, such as the two County administrations, in order to practice our inter-departmental and inter-agency cooperation,” Boughner explained. “We’ll keep doing this until we feel very comfortable with our processes.”

A pandemic results when a new, deadly strain of the influenza virus appears to which the population has no immunity and it spreads across a huge geographic area, usually world-wide. Pandemic influenza tends to occur in two or three waves, sometimes over several months.

Three influenza pandemics occurred in the 20th century – the Spanish (1918), Asian (1957) and Hong Kong (1968) pandemics. The Spanish flu pandemic killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people worldwide. Experts say another pandemic is due any time now, although the exact timing and pattern of the pandemic is unpredictable. The next pandemic could impact 15 to 20 per cent of the population.

“In Haldimand and Norfolk Counties, with a combined population of 111,000, thousands of our local residents could be out of action and seeking medical treatment,” Boughner said. “The effects would be overwhelming for our health care system and society as a whole. How would our hospitals cope with the flood of sufferers? How would businesses and services cope with such a rate of employee absenteeism? How will we continue to provide essential services such as police, ambulance and firefighting? We need to be ready for this – as ready as is humanly possible. That’s why we have developed a plan and hold these exercises to continuously improve that plan.”

The Health Unit carries a variety of booklets and fact sheets on how individuals, families and businesses can prepare for a flu pandemic. To view or download these documents from the Health Unit website, seek www.hnhu.org and then click the “diseases” tab and “pandemic.” The documents can also be picked up at the Health Unit offices in Simcoe and Caledonia.

Media contact:
Karen Boughner, Manager Public Health
Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit
519-426-6170 Ext. 3218 or 905-318-6623 Ext. 3218