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Stanford prepares to implement its pandemic plan if needed

BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN

In response to the continuing spread of swine flu, the World Health Organization has raised its influenza pandemic alert level, saying countries should immediately activate their preparedness plans and remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illnesses and severe pneumonia.

"At this stage, effective and essential measures include heightened surveillance, early detection and treatment of cases, and infection control in all health facilities," Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the organization, announced on Wednesday.

The organization raised the alert level to Phase 5, a "strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communications, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short."

At Stanford, a campus-wide task force that has been meeting regularly for several years to develop and review emergency plans related to pandemic influenza.

The task force is now meeting daily to ensure that the university's Pandemic Influenza Plan, if needed, can be implemented as efficiently and effectively as possible. The group is also working closely with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, Stanford's hospitals and infectious disease faculty at the Medical School as the situation develops.

"At this point, our advance planning has paid off," said Ira Friedman, director of Vaden Health Center. "We've been able to quickly organize our response according to our Pandemic Influenza Plan. All campus response units know their roles, duties and the resources available. The emphasis at this phase is communication and education."

No faculty, staff or students currently show illness consistent with swine flu.

In a recent letter to the Stanford community, Provost John Etchemendy encouraged everyone to follow common sense measures that can help diminish the spread of the virus:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water frequently or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands, since they pick up viruses from surfaces you touch.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • As a precautionary measure, Stanford officials are advising students, faculty and staff to avoid travel to Mexico.

    The World Health Organization uses a six-phase approach to responding to health threats.

    Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one of its six regions. Phase 6 means a global pandemic is under way.

    Chan said that past experience has shown that influenza may cause mild disease in affluent countries, but more disease, with a greater number of deaths, in developing nations.

    "The biggest question, right now, is this: How severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start?" she said.