Published: Monday, June 19, 2006
Updated: Saturday, June 16, 2012 01:06
There is no denying that avian flu has become the story of the moment. News programs focusing on avian flu have been fueled by the increasing appearance of it around the world.
The avian flu craze has even spread to the entertainment industry. In May, ABC aired “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America,” a TV movie about the consequences of a bird flu pandemic in the U.S. Despite tepid reviews, it was still a hot topic on various Internet blogs the next day.
Although the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus has existed since 1997, it became highly visible in 2003 after large numbers of chickens suddenly died in South Korea, according to the World Heath Organization. Since then the disease has spread among the bird populations in Asia, Africa and recently in Europe and there has now been an increasing number of human cases. The WHO reports that as of May 29 of this year, there have been 224 cases of avian influenza and 127 deaths attributed to the disease.
But what is the likelihood of an avian flu pandemic?
Dr. Richard Slemons, an associate professor of veterinary preventive medicine and a nationally recognized expert on avian influenza, said a pandemic is possible.
“If that virus is able to replicate more readily in humans, that will give it, by pure chance, the ability to adapt by random mutations in humans and start a pandemic,” Slemons said. “So this virus can go across the species barrier and start another pandemic.”
Dr. Tom Wittum and Dr. Armando Hoet, associate professors of veterinary preventive medicine with a joint appointment in the Ohio State School of Public Health, said there were different factors influencing the appearance of multiple cases of bird flu in Asia.
“Why we’re seeing human cases over there is because of differences in the way the birds live,” Wittum said. “Over here we have these big barns where we can put all our chickens in there. In other parts of the world, every household has a few birds living in the house with them. So the virus is being maintained in those kinds of populations and it provides more opportunities for people to be gradually exposed to the virus.”
Matt Platz, professor of chemistry and a faculty fellow at the Office of Academic Affairs, said it is impossible to know precisely when the next pandemic will strike.
“I think there were three or four pandemics in the 20th century,” Platz said. “No one can predict when the next one will come. No one can predict how severe it will be.”
Wittum said he agreed it was difficult to predict whether a pandemic would come about.
The probability of a pandemic is very low based on what the scientific community knows about the virus, Wittum said. “However, we know that there have been three examples in the past century when these types of outbreaks did occur. It’s a very low probability but there is some risk that it could occur,” he said.
While the idea of a pandemic seems minuscule to some, the administration at Ohio State is currently working on implementing a plan in the case that a pandemic does occur.
When autumn quarter commences, students and faculty can expect to receive information on the subject.
As well as serving as a chemistry professor, Platz is also working to develop a response plan for the Office of Student Affairs that will be reviewed by the Department of Public Safety.
“I’m working on an Aug. 15 deadline to get my plan for the response for the Office of Academic Affairs to the Department of Public Safety,” Platz said.
“We would like to have plans set in place by the first day of classes.”
Platz said the plan regarding how to react to a pandemic is in the beginning stages of being defined and that the summer months will be used to develop answers on how to best respond to the closing of campus for about month and the impact the closing would have on the academic sect.
“How we handle things will depend on whether we are closed in the first week of the quarter or the ninth week of the quarter, and how we would handle grades and how we would handle the start of subsequent quarters,” Platz said. “That’s what we’re going to be thinking about all summer.”
Platz said in the event that the university is closed, students living in dorms who can go home will be sent home.
“The empty dorms could be used as quarantine or isolation units for people who are sick or have been exposed and are not yet sick,” Platz said. “Some dorms will have to be kept open for those students that can’t go home, those students that are international or in other personal circumstances.”
Platz said the state may need the dorms to serve as temporary hospitals.
University Resources and Planning Budget Director Lee Walker said there are enterprises that must be considered in the planning for a pandemic. Walker was in her junior year at OSU when it was closed in 1970 because of shootings at Kent State.
“The thing I didn’t understand when I was a student at Ohio State, probably, or didn’t appreciate as much as I do now with the work I do at the university, is all the sort of stops,” Walker said. “What do you do with the research lab? What do you do with all the animals? Does everyone go home except the guys that feed the animals? There is so much else besides the students and the faculty.”
According to US News & World Report¸ between 2003 and 2004, the OSU Medical Center had 29,200 admissions, 612,584 outpatient visits and 53,294 emergency room visits. As such, closing the university would certainly affect the hospital.
Walker agrees that what to do with OSU Medical Center would be a major concern.
“One-third of our enterprise is the hospital,” Walker said. “Ohio State University has a $3 billion budget, $1 billion of that is the OSU hospital. There are people in the hospital who had just had heart surgery and who are having chemo for cancer and so I guess the hospital stays open if the university shuts down. There is just so much to consider in an enterprise this large.”
Platz also said a pandemic would definitely have an effect on school events, such as football games.
“If the worse comes there’ll be a lot of cancellations,” he said. “I think if the worse comes people wouldn’t want to crowd together in the football stadium. I think we would forbid that from happening even if people wanted to go. I think we can expect cancellations of a lot of public events.”
Whether or not an avian flu pandemic hits, Platz said the university’s planning and preparation will not be for nothing.
“It’s important for the university to go through the exercise because what we learn from the exercise isn’t limited to avian flu,” Platz said. “It would be also used in case of a dam breaking, a flood, a terrorist attack, or any other disaster scenario you could imagine. The hope is that what we learn here will be transferable to other events.”