During the flu season, it is expected that many people will catch the virus that causes influenza and come down with the illness. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that, on average, approximately 5 to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu, and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications, each year. But in the case of an outbreak, where a large percentage of an area's population is affected at once, Naval District Washington (NDW) is prepared.
"Naval District Washington could be affected by an influenza outbreak occurring anywhere. In this day and age with people traveling globally all the time, influenza can be spread quite rapidly if it is easily transmitted," said Dr. Margan Zajdowicz, NDW public health emergency officer. "Viruses, including influenza virus, do not respect geographic boundaries. As long as people move around and interact with each other, the potential for spread exists."
Zajdowicz said that while NDW, like any community, is susceptible to a flu outbreak, the region has precautions in place to ensure the containment and management of such a scenario. She said that by learning from outbreaks in the past, NDW has built plans to prevent the spread of the flu before it becomes a pandemic.
"The H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 illustrates appropriate response to influenza threat," said Zajdowicz. "First, the outbreak is recognized. Then methods to slow transmission are put into place. These methods include use of respiratory etiquette and encouraging or mandating sick people to stay home. At the same time, there would be a huge effort to distribute the influenza vaccine and to deploy it into the arms of people as fast as possible. Also, there would be efforts to treat people with antiviral therapy and some people at high risk might receive antiviral prophylaxis. Naval District Washington would participate in many if not all of these interventions."
According to Thompson Gerke, NDW senior operations planner, NDW currently follows NDWINST 3440.17, the regional response NDW public health emergency plan, which accounts for a pandemic scenario.
Zajdowicz noted that flu outbreaks are an extremely serious occurrence that can have deadly consequences if no plan is in place or is otherwise unavailable. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, more than 600,000 people died in the U.S. alone as a result of the disease, with life expectancy lowered during those years in communities affected by the outbreak.
"Being prepared is essential because a serious influenza pandemic can disrupt our nation's security and degrade mission readiness," said Zajdowicz.
Zajdowicz added that while a reaction plan is in place, the best way to prevent a flu outbreak is to be proactive. Following basic sanitary practices, such as hand washing, coughing or sneezing in to the crook of your elbow, and avoiding touching your eyes and mouth, will help to keep the spread of germs and viruses, like the flu, to a minimum. But Zajdowicz said that the best defense is getting a flu vaccine to prevent being infected at all.
"Receiving an annual influenza vaccine is the best and most important defense against outbreaks," said Zajdowicz. "Even when we encounter a novel strain of influenza, like we did in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, people who have been multiply vaccinated for influenza do better and are more resistant to influenza infection. This is because they have mounted multiple immune responses to a variety of related influenza viruses and cross reactivity protects them to some extent. This was demonstrated during the H1N1 pandemic where older, multiply vaccinated people were not so susceptible to H1N1."
In the Department of Defense (DoD) the flu vaccine is a mandatory annual inoculation, and the Navy is doing its part to ensure that its personnel comply to maintain their operability.
"The Chief of Naval Operations has set Navywide goals to ensure that the entire force, active and Reserve, is 90 percent vaccinated by Dec. 17, 2012, and that Navy families have 100 percent access to the vaccine as well," said Gerke. "NDW is well on its way to meeting and exceeding that goal, and as a result, to meet any challenges posed by the flu to maintain our capabilities as a force."
For more information on flu prevention, visit www.cdc.gov/flu/.