Homer:Three Terrible Pandemics in the 20th Century | Guest Commentary
Aug 01, 2007 | 534 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
By Maria Osterhaus, Public Health Intern, San Miguel County Public Health Nursing Service, and

Dr. David Homer, Public Health Officer

Pandemic flu will happen sooner or later. Though experts cannot predict when the next pandemic will occur, history shows a rough pattern. In the past century, the U.S. has experienced three pandemics and most experts believe that one will occur again. This happens from time to time as new flu bugs emerge. Sometimes, as in the war-torn world of 1918, it's a terrible plague. Sometimes, as in 1957 and 1968, it's relatively mild.

Because of the extent of the 1918 “Spanish Flu,” there has been extensive research done on how it spread and who was most affected. A study done by the University of Michigan was particularly interested in looking communities with extremely low rates of infection during the second wave of this pandemic; Gunnison, Colorado was identified as one of these communities. 

From this report on how non-pharmaceutical interventions and protection measures were used successfully in these communities, the Task Force created in San Miguel County to prepare for disasters such as a pandemic, has insight on how such measures might work in a Mountain Community.

When influenza arrived in Colorado in 1918, Gunnison County took immediate action. After the first precautionary warning from the State Board of Health, the schools were closed across the county, with the order that they would remain so for at least two weeks. County officials also implemented social distancing measures, requiring certain places in the county to be closed for at least four weeks. Lest its readers take the situation too lightly, the local newspaper reported on the seriousness of the pandemic and the cases confirmed in nearby counties, many of which were highly affected. The county physician enacted protective sequestration of the entire county, including a mandatory quarantine period of two days for anyone entering the county.

These strict protective measures and required school and business closures were finally lifted after four months. But, because of the strict precautions taken by the county, only two individuals were infected in Gunnison County during this wave of the pandemic.

The example of Gunnison County shows how non-pharmaceutical interventions can be effective during a disaster such as a pandemic, however, the community must be prepared for such events and all members of the community must be willing to cooperate.

A primary goal of the Task Force is to respond to such a disaster and direct the appropriate resources in order to protect the health of all citizens. One way to do this effectively is to keep the public informed before, during, and after the event to reduce public fear and increase individual adherence to public health precautions or directives.

History has taught us both the devastation a pandemic can bring and also measures that have been both effective and ineffective in preventing spread of disease. Besides community control measures there are also personal protection measures that can be used. Preparation for such an event is vital to maintaining the health of the community.

Recently, a survey was created to gauge the level of emergency preparedness in the county.  To participate in the brief survey, visit sanmiguelsheriff.com.  To help prepare you and your family for Pandemic Flu or other public health emergencies, visit the Emergency Management page on the sanmiguelsheriff.com Web site and these useful links: Pandemicflu.gov; Readycolorado.com and Preparecolorado.org.

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