Friday, April 27, 2007
Planning for a bird-flu outbreak in real time
"I don't have good news," the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said gravely, as reporters leaned forward in the CDC briefing room. "Until recently, H5N1 was a bird virus, contained to birds. Now there's strong evidence that in at least some cases, it has adapted and is capable of transmitting from one person to another and then another."
Sounds alarming. But we're not alarmed, because it's only part of a drill, an exercise involving more than 1,000 people, simulating a cross-globe outbreak of deadly bird flu. It started Wednesday morning in the CDC's very real Emergency Operations Center, in its Atlanta, Georgia, headquarters.
At 8:37 a.m., we got the scenario: a dozen people sick in the United States, all with connections to an Indonesian student at Georgetown University. The young man and two others are dead. Other suspected cases are on a plane being held at an airport in Honolulu, Hawaii. There are recommendations to funnel international flights to just 20 U.S. cities for screening, to send an investigative team to Jakarta, to move vaccines and antiviral medications closer to the hot zone.
"It's hard to define the worst-case scenario," CDC Director Julie Gerberding told "reporters" (in reality, CDC staffers), as well as real reporters observing the mock press briefing. The 25 percent fatality rate in this week's scenario "is beyond our planning imagination," she said.
It's easy to make light of role-playing scenarios, to say they don't approximate the real thing. But a drill like this helps inspire that imagination. It can turn up fixable problems - it took more than an hour to get everyone logged into computer stations in the Emergency Ops Center - but mostly, it gets everyone thinking about the questions they'll be asking in a real crisis.
How worried are you about bird flu? Let us know.
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