Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Pandemic Preparedness Messaging Dilemma



Basic Preps: Emergency Weather Radio, First Aid Kit, Battery Lantern, Water storage



# 7520



National Preparedness Month (September) is just over a month away, and along with thousands of others across the country, AFD blog is once again proud to be part of this year’s NPM coalition.


FEMA and (along with many other state and federal agencies) urge personal, family, business, and community preparedness for all types of natural or man-made disasters, because they know that these events can and will happen.


We’re not talking about adopting a Ramboesque `doomsday prepper mentality here, but rather a rational and proportional response to genuine – if not entirely predictable – threats (see NPM12: Everyday Preppers).


Local, state, and federal officials know that during and following a disaster (hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake) their ability to respond – particularly during the first 72 hours – may be limited. 


They also know that essential services - like electrical power, 911 service, and running potable water - could be out in some communities for days or even weeks.  


Which makes having minimum preps (at least 3 days of food & water, first aid supplies, flashlights & lanterns, an NWS emergency radio, and a workable emergency plan) essential for every family and business.


Of+ course, 3 days is a minimum recommendation.

Most emergency managers would concede that having more (say, a week or 10 days) would be preferable (see When 72 Hours Isn’t Enough).


The County of Los Angeles Emergency Survival Guide calls for having 3 to 10 days worth of food and water. The L.A. guide may be downloaded here (6.5 Mbyte PDF). 


And the HHS has historically called for `at least’  2-weeks worth of preps for families to deal with a serious pandemic.


But in these tough economic times, telling families and businesses they should prep for 3 days is difficult enough - if agencies set the preparedness bar too high they fear it would discourage some from trying at all.


While natural disasters (like earthquakes, hurricanes & floods) are a perennial threat, we are also watching two newly emerging viruses (MERS-CoV & H7N9) – along with H5N1 -  that all appear to have some degree of pandemic potential.


And that brings up the old problem of how do we talk (rationally and effectively) about pandemic preparednessparticularly in these difficult economic times - when we can’t know with any certainty that a pandemic is really in the offing?


I confess this has been a frequent topic of conversation here in backchannels of Flublogia, and is something that Sharon Sanders of FluTrackers and I wrestle with almost daily.


We are both sensitive to the fact that many people are simply not in a position to make extensive preparations, yet we know the more people in a community who are prepared, the better able that community will be to deal with any disaster.


Like this blog, FluTrackers promotes an `All Hazards’ preparedness stance.


`We believe in the "all disaster" methodology in preparedness. If everyone is prepared for the typical natural disaster threats in their local areas this will be an effective preparation for any infectious disease outbreak.’ Sharon Sanders.


We both stress the importance of creating a good support system among family and friends (see In An Emergency, Who Has Your Back?) and strongly support the AMA’s advice for those with prescription medicine needs to store enough extra to see them through a disaster scenario (see AMA press release PERSONAL MEDICATION SUPPLY IN TIMES OF DISASTER).


Back in 2006-2007 many people promoted the idea of having up to 3 months of supplies on hand, including a high profile article in The Medical Journal of Australia called A food “lifeboat”: food and nutrition considerations in the event of a pandemic or other catastrophe.

But for most people this just isn’t practical, and is probably overkill anyway.


But a pandemic could cause you and your family to need (or desperately want) to stay home for two weeks or longer, and to do that you would need to have adequate supplies on hand.


While much of the pandemic preparedness messaging developed by the HHS between 2005 and 2008 is no longer online, still maintains a pandemic planning and preparedness page, where the following appears.



Their advice (and this is for before a pandemic threat becomes imminent).




While these (and other) pandemic preparedness documents are available on the  website, and the CDC has been busily issuing interim pandemic guidance to the healthcare community (see CDC: Pandemic Planning Tips For Public Health Officials, H7N9 Preparedness: What The CDC Is Doing), so far there has been very little messaging directed to the general public.


I’m certain there is (quite understandable) concern over being perceived as `crying wolf’ again, after the huge build up the HHS gave H5N1 between 2006 and 2008, which still hasn’t produced a pandemic.


But of course, the H5N1 story hasn’t been completely written yet, either. 


As I said, it’s a dilemma. And I don’t suggest that there are any easy, or obvious answers. 


While the odds that we will see a severe pandemic in the near term are probably low (not that anyone really knows), they probably are no more remote than our seeing an 8.0+ earthquake or a CAT 5 hurricane strike a large American city during the same time frame.


Threats that are openly discussed and prepared for each and every year (see NPM12: A Whole Lotta Shakeouts Going On & Hurricane Preparedness Week: Day 6 & 7).



Perhaps there’s something about a pandemic scenario which seems more `real’ and personal than these other disasters, and therefore more difficult to discuss and plan for. After all, it took more than 80 years and the publication of John Barry’s book The Great Influenza, before the Spanish Flu of 1918 re-entered the American conversation.


But difficult or not, the pandemic threat needs to considered seriously, and put at least on an equal footing with the other `hazards’ we encourage the public and the business community to prepare for.


Not because it is an easy dialog to hold, but because by the time we know a pandemic is truly on the way, it will be well past time to have started that conversation.


For far more expert commentary on pandemic preparedness and crisis communications than I can provide, I’d invite you to visit The Peter M. Sandman Risk Communication Website where Dr. Sandman and Dr. Jody Lanard explore these issues often, most recently in:


Pandemic preparedness and pandemic stages re H5N1, H7N9, and MERS



And for those interested, some of my recent pandemic preparedness essays include:


The Great Mask Debate Revisited

Pandemic Planning For Business

Practice, Practice, Practice

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