Pandemic panic needs to be curbed
A U.S.-based expert on infectious disease and biosecurity says there is an overwhelming amount of inaccurate and sensational information circulating about a possible flu pandemic, much of which is “ridiculous” and causing unnecessary panic.
By Jennifer Brown
Speaking to about 7,000 attendees at the American Industrial Hygiene
Conference and Exposition (AIHce) in Chicago May 15, Don Henderson,
M.D., a resident fellow of the Center for Biosecurity, of the
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said he has consulted with
several major U.S. television networks as they were preparing stories
about a possible pandemic. In many cases, he says their reports
contained inaccurate or exaggerated material.
“We said ”˜it doesn’t happen this way.’ We tried to work with the
producers to try to get it right; let’s at least try to get the facts
Henderson has an extensive background in public health and bioterrorism
— he lead the global effort to eradicate smallpox 25 years ago.
He says widely-publicized reports that estimate 35 to 40 per cent of
workers would be off the job during a pandemic are exaggerated,
indicating that actual rates are more likely in the 15 per cent range.
“It’s a real job to keep some accurate reporting on this,” said
Henderson, whose talk was entitled: The Impact of Biosecurity and
Bioterrorism on Public Health in the Workplace. “There needs to be much
less fear and drama. The real problem is how is industry going to
respond? It’s almost like they’re looking at it as an Armageddon
phenomenon. I have a feeling industry has been pressed hard to deal
with it and aren’t the predictions a little extreme?”
Henderson said government creditability is a huge issue and talk of
quarantine and travel restrictions at the border isn’t practical as it
will not be effective in a flu outbreak because certain flu strains can
be spread before individuals show symptoms.
Even with many companies planning to have workers continue their jobs
from home, having everyone lock themselves in their homes could also
crash the economy, he says.
Henderson says better communication is needed not only with the media, but also with health organizations around the world.
“There has been information withheld by a number of countries about the
bird flu. We’re identifying a number of cases where it is clear the
country had outbreaks before it was publicly identified,” he says.
Henderson said China is one of the more sensitive areas for extracting
information about flu activity. “It’s hard to know what’s going on
there. We met with some high-level Chinese officials in December. Their
system of surveillance is pretty poor but I think we’re getting better
In terms of addressing “what to do,” Henderson says that while it may
not be practical to close schools for long periods of time, they can
act as indicators for where and how the flu is spreading. “We will just
need to look at the absentee rate in elementary schools to see what’s
After that, the steps to take are fairly simple: stay home, drink lots of fluids, get rest, wash your hands and keep warm.
“There has to be the basic idea of not panicking; lets go about our
business and keep churches open and live with it. The idea of sitting
at home for 10 to 12 weeks is perfectly ridiculous — do we really think
people are going to do this?
Henderson did admit that the health care system is not prepared to
handle the number of sick patients that may end up at hospitals during
“Even today, when we have an ordinary flu, any number of hospitals must
go on hospital by-pass because they are full. We think hospitals will
be full in a week,” he says.
In speaking with hospital CEOs in the U.S., Henderson said they have
told him that of their total patient roster, up to 15 to 20 per cent,
possibly 30 per cent could be flu patients.
“You may have thought we had a disaster with patients not being cared
for in (hurricane) Katrina — that will be nothing compared to this,” he
Henderson called the H5:N1 avian flu strain “unprecedented” because 50
per cent of the 200 people who have been infected have died. By
comparison, in the 1918 flu pandemic only two per cent of infected
He predicted that birds infected with avian flu would arrive in the
United States by September or October 2006, but does not believe that
the flu would spread as rapidly among the U.S. population as it has in
South Asia, since poultry is not as free-roaming as it is in Asia.