Sandia LabNews

Bird flu concerns prompt Sandia pandemic preparations

Experts don’t yet know whether the bird flu will prove to be another doomsday false alarm or develop into a merciless worldwide epidemic, or pandemic.

Either way, preparing for a major public health threat is a worthwhile endeavor, says Warren Cox (10312), who coordinates the activities of a small multi-organizational Sandia team that is planning for a range of possible avian flu outcomes.

Think about business continuity

“Preparing for an avian flu pandemic forces us to think about how the Labs would continue to operate, and how it would communicate with employees, contractors, retirees, and their families, if America awoke tomorrow to the rapid spread of a virus or other biological threat within its borders,” he says. (See “Why Sandia is preparing” on page 4.)

The team’s work complements other business continuity planning projects in recent years to prepare the Labs for terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and other crises.

“We tend to be less sensitive in the US to biological threats than in other parts of the world where infectious diseases, like TB and HIV, affect people’s lives more profoundly,” says Dr. Larry Clevenger (3300), director of Sandia’s Health, Benefits, and Employee Services Center, who leads the planning team.

False assumptions

“Western civilization’s assumption is we can whip it with antibiotics and technology,” he says. “But because there is no natural immunity to avian flu in the human population, our experience is more likely to be like centuries-old phenomena.”

Pandemics occur in varying severities on average four times per century. The most recent, the Hong Kong flu of 1968-1969, killed approximately 28,000 Americans. The most deadly 20th-century pandemic was the Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which killed some 500,000 Americans and 21 million people worldwide.

But the emerging avian flu virus, technically the H5N1 variant, comes with many unknowns, says Larry (see “About the avian flu” at right). It might remain primarily in the bird population. It might combine with a common flu virus and begin to transmit among people. Mutations might render it more or less efficient (virulent) or more or less deadly (pathogenic). Worldwide precautions might blunt its spread. Global air travel might enhance its spread.

“There simply is too much we don’t know to determine the likelihood of a pandemic,” says Larry. But the consequences of one are too severe to ignore, he says.

Localized response

“The worry is that it could emerge in such a way that it quickly becomes pervasive across the country, or it could spread from several areas,” he says. “A widespread emergence could limit city, state, and federal governments’ collective abilities to respond,” he says.

That is to say, in some scenarios community governments and individuals might need to implement federal recommendations and respond to local threats without direct federal support or intervention.

In fact, careful hygiene practices, social distancing, local school and workplace closures, quarantines, and selective administration of existing flu vaccines would likely be the prevalent tools in blunting the spread of a pandemic virus, Larry says.

What this tells us, he says, is now is a good time to develop and hone regional, institutional, family, and personal emergency plans with public health events in mind (see “Pandemic to-do list” at right).

National preparations

Sandia’s preparations include business continuity planning for such possible flu-related events as travel restrictions, high employee absentee rates over a several-week period, imposed telecommuting, and, in a worst-case scenario, shutdown of all but the most essential Sandia systems and infrastructures for days or weeks.

Sandia is not alone. All US federal government agencies are required to develop pandemic influenza contingency plans. Most companies with a global presence have been planning for avian flu outbreaks since 1998, when the virus emerged in Asia. Many more companies are beginning their planning now.

Sandia’s effort is coordinated with parallel efforts at both DOE and Lockheed Martin, Warren says.

“Planning for the spectrum of possibilities is a daunting task, but it is critical that Sandia has a continuity plan specific to public health threats,” he says. “We need Sandians to make themselves aware of national readiness efforts and be ready for something other than business as usual should a serious threat emerge,” he says.

Watch the Lab News, the online avian flu portal ( flu/index.html), and other Sandia publications during the coming months for information about avian flu preparations and other related efforts, including being prepared to work from home, as well as common-sense hygiene tips that can help Sandians and their families stay healthy.

Pandemic to-do list

Sandia employees, contractors, and retirees are urged to prepare in the following ways:

  1. Learn about the avian flu. The avian flu portal now available on Sandia’s external web ( flu/index.html) contains the latest avian flu informat ion from authoritative sources. The portal will become the primary source of Sandia news and information for employees in a pandemic-related crisis.
  2. Understand how a public health event might affect your work. As a Labs-wide plan develops, the Sandia avian flu portal will include continually updated information useful for organizational and individual business continuity planning. Managers also will receive instructions for conducting a public health threat organizational self-assessment.
  3. Find out how you and your family can prepare. A personal readiness plan specific to a public health crisis is available at (click on Individual Planning).

About the avian flu

The H5N1 variant, known informally as the avian flu or bird flu, so far has been contained primarily among bird populations in parts of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. It has not acquired the ability to spread efficiently from human to human, nor has the virus been reported in the US among birds or humans.

Of the approximately 200 people known to have contracted the virus worldwide since 2003, about half have died. (For comparison, the 1918 Spanish flu had a 3 percent mortality rate.) The vast majority of those who contracted the virus, however, are believed to have contracted it through close contact with infected birds, not from other people.

US federal government responses are tied to World Health Organization pandemic alert levels, which are in turn tied to current avian flu-related developments around the world.

Sandia’s avian flu portal ( resources/emp-ret/flu/index.html), now available on Sandia’s external web, provides the latest avian flu information from authoritative sources.

Why Sandia is preparing

Sandia has several good reasons to plan for an avian flu pandemic, says Dr. Larry Clevenger, director of Health, Benefits, and Employee Services Center 3300:

  1. As an employer Sandia has an obligation to help protect employees, retirees, and their families, he says.
  2. As a national security lab, Sandia must be able to continue to support its government, industry, and academic partners in a national crisis.
  3. Sandia should be ready to complement local and regional responses to an avian flu outbreak in New Mexico, California, and other host communities.
  4. And as a high-tech lab, Sandia has an unusual ability to talk about and focus on possible technical contributions. (More about this in a future Lab News.)