If you're just beginning to research what bird flu is and what it might mean to you, make sure you quickly understand this point (it will affect much of what you do):
The buck stops with you.
There's a very rational, unavoidable reason for this - namely, the widespread scope of a flu pandemic.
At a January 12, 2006 meeting in Vermont, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said:
"It will break out in every community at the same time, and every community will have to take care of its own. Every state, every city, every town, every church, every business, every school and every family needs a plan. That is what will ultimately produce our readiness."
As the U.S. Pandemic Influenza Plan states:
"In the extreme, until a vaccine [is] available in sufficient quantity, ... thousands of communities could be countering influenza simultaneously with little or no assistance from adjacent communities, the state, or the federal government. Preparedness planning for pandemic influenza response must take this into account."
Preparing for a pandemic is such a big task that it has to be divided. Responding to a serious flu pandemic is more than the U.S. government is capable of doing - much more. Quoting again from the U.S. Pandemic Influenza Plan: "The unique characteristics and events of a pandemic will strain local, state, and federal resources." You absolutely MUST understand that.
An oft-repeated admonition
The U.S. federal government has emphatically and repeatedly told the state governments that federal help may be very limited during any pandemic - that the states should plan for as much self-sufficiency as possible.
Secretary Leavitt has been going state to state participating in pandemic planning meetings. With great consistency, he's been making it clear that local readiness is the bedrock of pandemic preparedness and that there will be no turning to Uncle Sam should the worst happen.
In Orlando, FL he said:
"Any community that fails to prepare with the [idea] that somehow, in the end, the federal government will be able to rescue them will be tragically wrong."
"Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government will throw them a lifeline is tragically wrong."
In Las Vegas, NV:
"Any community that fails to prepare because they assume the federal government would come in and rescue is tragically wrong. That is why the president has asked us to mobilize the country."
I could show you a much longer list of state meetings where Secretary Leavitt has said the exact same thing - obviously. (Quite clearly, this is one of the main messages in his "talking points.")
If the feds can't help the states....
Now, take this one step further. In the event of a significant flu pandemic, the federal government has said what is unquestionably true - it cannot provide wide-scale help to the states. By extension, how much do you think the states can help with your individual needs (especially if the states have limited federal help)?
I am not suggesting that the federal government wouldn't help the states or that the states wouldn't help their citizens. Quite to the contrary, I expect all levels of government would be throwing everything they can at this. They would have to.
What I am suggesting is this...
BIG IMPORTANT POINT: The core pandemic preparation for any household or business falls to that household or business. Any other approach is risky (said kindly) or foolhardy (said bluntly). There's a reason Secretary Leavitt chose the phrase "tragically wrong."
What will the governments do?
In a nationwide event like a pandemic, governments must focus on the fundamentals. Things like:
- Healthcare systems
- Distributing influenza medicines (if available)
- Infrastructure operation: utilities, sanitation.
- Preserving peace and safety
You'll notice that doesn't include things like food ... prescription drugs ... diapers and baby food ... contraceptives ... toiletries and other comforts ... batteries or generators ... dog or cat food.
Businesses, there's no mention of providing you with parts and ingredients, telecommuting services, or uninterrupted trucking. Nothing about making your workplaces less infectious. If you want those things, you'd better be making plans.
What the governments and others are providing are suggestions on what to consider as you draft your household or business pandemic plans. But YOU have to develop those plans and make your preparations. YOU.
Your governments will do all they can. But that won't be enough.
The buck stops here
Emergency preparedness always "starts at home" with individual households, businesses, and local communities thinking about how to protect their interests.
Due to the scale of a pandemic, the federal government can't help states much. States can't help each other much. States can only do so much for individual citizens. Bottom line: Individuals and businesses need to make their own basic preparations and consider any state or federal help "gravy."
This is also why there's an unusually strong appeal for public-private collaboration on pandemic plans. A serious flu pandemic would require the broad pooling of resources to cope.
Let's talk heart-to-heart for a moment ... and put this in context.
Sooner or later, another flu pandemic will happen. They happen from time to time.
Influenza A H5N1 - the bird flu strain that's causing such concern now - may or may not cause the next human flu pandemic. No one knows. We don't know "if" or "when." What the experts do know is that H5N1 is particularly nasty. They don't know how much of that nastiness will remain if H5N1 should cause a human pandemic. But if it should cause a pandemic, the pandemic could be a major one. Major flu pandemics can be absolutely horrible. And have far-reaching impacts on individual lives, communities, countries, businesses, and economies.
A pandemic won't last forever. But how well we do during the event and how quickly we recover will be directly influenced by how well we prepare. It's just that simple.