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July 20, 2006

University plans pandemic preparedness

Pitt is mobilizing resources to confront a potential outbreak of avian flu.

The University has established the pandemic preparedness workgroup, which is composed of a wide range of Pitt officials and medical personnel.

Convened by Jerome Cochran, executive vice chancellor, the workgroup’s goal is to develop plans in the event the avian flu virus mutates from the current birds-to-human virus to the feared human-to-human virus, which could lead to a pandemic.

“Even without an immediate threat,” Cochran said in a prepared statement, “it’s prudent to have a well-thought-out plan to enhance the safety of students, faculty and staff and maintain the orderly operations of the University.”

Similar planning is occurring at many other institutions, including UPMC, municipal and regional governmental bodies and emergency planning agencies.

“Since our Pittsburgh campus sits in the middle of a large city, our plans must be coordinated with the region around us,” said Jay Frerotte, director of Environmental Health and Safety and chair of the workgroup, in a press release. “But as an institution of more than 46,000 people, 6,300 of whom live on campus, we are alert to concerns particular to us.”

The planning process also will cover Pitt’s off-campus facilities and its four regional campuses.

Since the pandemic preparedness workgroup’s first meeting in April, subcommittees have been devising plans covering student life, academic affairs, administration and research continuity.

“The pandemic preparedness workgroup will integrate the work products developed by each subcommittee into one pandemic preparedness plan,” Frerotte told the University Times this week.

“A draft plan is to be ready for internal review in September 2006,” he said.

The plan will provide another component of the University’s existing emergency response guidelines, that is, a framework for the University’s response to a pandemic, he said.

“Since the specifics of such a disease outbreak are undefined, many of the specifics regarding protective measures will not be incorporated into this plan,” Frerotte said.

“What will be defined are the resources necessary to be prepared for such an episode,” he said. “For instance, What are the essential departments and who are the essential personnel? Where will the University house ill students unable to get home if health care facilities are not obtainable? How many protective masks will be stockpiled for essential personnel? How will the University function in the event of 40 percent absenteeism? And so on.”

Information about the avian flu and the latest information about Pitt’s plans can be accessed on line at The web site is meant to be the primary repository of information and developments about the avian flu for the University community.

However, the site also includes links to national and international news, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (University of Minnesota), Pitt and UPMC relevant offices, including informational sites such as the UPMC Center for Biosecurity and Pitt’s Center for Public Health Preparedness, national and state government response plans, travel advisories, updated worldwide confirmed cases of both human and animal avian flu by location, potential economic impact of a flu pandemic and frequently asked questions.

If necessary, the Pitt site will be supplemented by publications, telephone hotlines and media alerts, officials said.

“At this time, members of the University community need only to become familiar with the location of resource information (the Pitt home page), and to develop or maintain their family/home emergency planning that Homeland Security has been suggesting since 2001,” Frerotte said.

Avian flu (also known as “bird flu”) is caused by naturally occurring influenza viruses. Normally, wild birds across the world are carriers of a harmless form of these viruses.

But recently, a new strain of the virus, H5N1 (named for the proteins on the surface of the virus), has killed birds of more than 80 species as well as flocks of domestic fowl in Asia, Europe and Africa.

The WHO has received reports of 230 laboratory-confirmed human cases of avian flu, 132 of them fatal, as of July 14.

Since 2003, human cases have been reported in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.

Vietnam, with 93 cases and 42 fatalities, has reported the largest number of cases, according to the WHO.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has met two of three WHO criteria signaling a pandemic threat: A new flu virus subtype has emerged and it infects humans, causing serious illness and, in the majority of cases, death. The third condition, that it spreads easily between humans, has not been met.

Human infection typically is the result of contact with infected birds; WHO reports have stated there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus. WHO officials continue to monitor virus-affected areas to watch for any indication of human-to-human transmission, a possible precursor to a widespread health crisis.

The present situation is categorized by the WHO as phase 3 (on a 6-phase scale): “A virus new to humans is causing infections, but does not spread easily from one person to another,” according to the WHO web site at

—Peter Hart

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