‘Swine flu’ outbreak troubles outer East Portland residents and business people

As we’re learning, this isn’t a “south of the border” health concern any longer. See what we’ve learned about this potentially-deadly form of illness …

Laura Tsaknaridis extracts RNA from specimens at the Oregon Public Health Lab on April 28. DHS photo

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
News reached us last week that an entirely new strain of influenza – the “swine flu virus” – had infected people near Mexico City. Some who contracted it died. But more disturbing was that the majority of the dead were reported as teens or young adults – the very group most likely to resist such a virus.

In recent years, a variety of public figures have been warning that we are due for another flu pandemic – meaning a worldwide epidemic. This may not be it, but then again it might be – the strain is too new to be fully tested, and is not covered in any flu shots administered so far. Early reports suggest that it may respond to the general anti-flu drug “Tamiflu” (Oseltamivir Phosphate).

In November, 2007, Program Supervisor of the Multnomah County Health Department, Jessica Guernsey Camargo, MPH, took a program showing kids how to avoid illness to Midland Library. “Washing your hands” is this part of her presentation.

Jessica Guernsey Camargo, MPH, Program Supervisor of the Multnomah County Health Department, issued a statement on Sunday night, April 26th, saying, “at this time we are not recommending any additional actions be taken other than the following – however, now is a good time to review your emergency plans in the event the situation changes.

“Routine prevention efforts are extremely important in decreasing the likelihood of the spread of diseases, including swine influenza. These efforts should include:

  • Frequent hand washing;
  • Covering your cough (with the inside of your elbow or sleeve, NOT your hand);
  • Staying home from work or school when you are sick; and,
  • Only going to the hospital in an emergency situation.

Camargo pointed out in her statement that earlier that day, President Obama had “declared a public health emergency because of the human cases of the new strain of swine flu identified in Mexico, the United States, and several other countries, with an apparent ability to spread from person to person like seasonal influenza.”

First suspected case in Portland
On April 30, Dr. Mel Kohn, head of the Oregon Public Health Department announced that Oregon’s first probable case of swine flu was identified late the previous day, following testing by the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory.

“The probable case was in a Multnomah County adult female who consulted her physician after experiencing flu-like symptoms,” Kohn reported. The woman, he added, was not hospitalized, and is recovering normally. She had been in contact with someone who had recently traveled to Mexico and had been exposed to the swine flu there, he said.

The specimen from this case was sent to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further characterization, with final results of testing expected in several days.

“It is very likely that this test will be confirmed by the final step of laboratory testing,” Kohn said. “So we are not waiting – we are treating this as a case of swine flu.”

This case is identified as probable, rather than confirmed, because the final step of testing has not yet been performed. However, the victim did test positive with non-typeable Influenza A. Results from the tests done so far by the CDC indicate that more than 95 percent of cases with this test result will ultimately test positive for the swine flu once the final step of testing is finished, according to Kohn.

During her 2007 “Pandemic Influenza Update”, Multnomah County’s Jessica Guernsey Camargo listens to the concern that a pandemic might shutter many small businesses, voiced by “82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association” President Ken Turner.

Considering pandemic possibilities
We recall attending a 2007 presentation Camargo called a “Pandemic Influenza Update” before a group of East Portland businesspeople.

Camargo made some blunt statements at that time, to illustrate the importance of taking the sort of precautions she advised, when a new strain of the flu turns up. That’s because, in this international age, a new virus could spread around the world in less than a month, but it takes six months to develop and distribute a new vaccine.

She told those present, “If an influenza pandemic hits East Portland, 40% of its businesses will be forced to close for as long as six weeks. Everyday life, as we know it, will be suspended. The bottom line: People will die, life in the city will be disrupted – and don’t expect the government to take care of you.

Pandemic defined
Speaking in an assured, matter-of-fact voice, Camargo defined a “pandemic”, and told how the disease spread.

“First, seasonal influenza is typically spread with a sneeze,” she began. “It affects up to 20% of  the population; the figure is higher among children.” Getting a flu shot helps, although it cannot protect against an entirely new strain.

“A ‘Pandemic’ is a worldwide outbreak of flu that occurs nearly simultaneously around the world,” explained Camargo. “It’s well-known that a lot of people died during the pandemics of 1918 and 1957-58. But, in 1968-69, most people didn’t know there was another pandemic outbreak underway.”

One role of MCHD, Camargo explained, is disease surveillance – identifying and containing a disease outbreak.

Another role of the county agency is planning for emergency response, should a human-to-human pandemic flu virus arrive in the Pacific Northwest. She talked about a coordinated statewide preparedness exercise coordinated by the MCHD, and how it influenced their agency to revise an emergence response plan to include:

  • Increasing public information community education and engagement;
  • Increasing hospital capacity; and,
  • Increasing ability to deliver medications and vaccinations.

Asked if quarantine could stop the pandemic, Camargo replied, “We do have the ability to do that. If it is early-on in the pandemic, and we have an isolated situation, quarantine may be effective. But it is not practical to quarantine a neighborhood.”

While the MHDC has the legal authority to impose a quarantine, Camargo told the group, “we don’t want to completely disrupt the community. When the situation is past, we want something left to come back to.”

Camargo describes the responses to a pandemic that their bureau is permitted, by law, to take.

No magic wand
“People still have to buy groceries when they’re sick, don’t they?” asked attendee Jean Baker, President of the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations.

“If a pandemic worsens to the level of requiring community-level intervention,” Camargo said, “officials will begin to enforce ‘social distancing’. In a pandemic scenario, it is possible that more than half of a company’s workforce may be too ill to work. This is why both citizens and businesspeople need to be prepared and make a plan.”

“There is no magic wand,” Camargo concluded. “There is no ‘cavalry’ coming. We’ll all be dealing with this at the same time. It will require every single person to make this a livable situation.”

How will businesses – and citizens – be able to survive the next flu pandemic, whether it is days away, or years off?

“Multnomah County has been doing all we can to prepare for it from the governmental side,” answered Camargo. “But people put too much reliance on vaccines and medication. [And antibiotics cannot help at all, since they affect only bacteria, not viruses.] The fact is, the only real way of managing a pandemic is through citizens taking personal responsibility.”

For more information, See The World Health Organization’s Internet website concerning the developing situation involving the new strain of swine flu. CLICK HERE to view it.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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