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College Prepares for Possible Pandemic Flu

As federal, state, and local government agencies are grappling with how to deal with the effects of a pandemic outbreak of avian flu, Dartmouth's Emergency Management Group (EMG) is meeting regularly to assess and revise the College’s plans. The group routinely  meets to work on strategies dealing with a broad range of crisis situations, including ice storms, power outages, earthquakes, and terrorist activity. The Pandemic Planning Group, a subset of the EMG that has been dealing specifically with pandemic preparedness, convened for a day-long retreat in April to assess planning for a possible outbreak of avian flu. While there is uncertainty as to whether the virus that causes bird flu will mutate into a form that could pass easily between humans, there is broad agreement that individuals and institutions should have preparedness plans in place to deal with it if it does.

Dartmouth's planning process for avian flu assumes the worst-case scenario of global human outbreak—one with the potential to cause widespread illness, death, and social disruption.  Members of the Pandemic Planning Group hope that such a scenario never materializes, but their goal is to make sure, if it does, that the College is as prepared as possible.  There will be another planning session this month, to continue to refine plans in light of emerging medical and public policy information.

President James Wright spoke at the April retreat, saying, “We have a responsibility to understand and anticipate all potential emergencies, including a global outbreak of avian flu, so we can devise the most effective plans for Dartmouth and the community."  In the event that plans for pandemic flu would have to be implemented, he said, “Our first principle will be to look for the best ways to protect the students and employees of our community.” He added that advance planning is of particular importance at Dartmouth because of the residential nature of the campus.

Stephen Spielberg, dean of Dartmouth Medical School, also spoke at the retreat and explained that if the virus does mutate into a form that is infectious by human-to-human contact, early efforts to contain its spread will be critical and might involve travel restrictions. Wright and other senior officers are monitoring events closely, consulting with medical experts and local and state officials. Should avian flu become transmissible to humans, a decision may be made to suspend some College operations.  

Conversations on pandemic planning, and the effects a decision to suspend the academic program would have, are currently under way now within divisions across campus. Plans are being made to ensure that certain key functions, including power plant operations, technology infrastructure, communications, payroll, and insurance, continue to operate in the event of a College closure. Deans are speaking with faculty members about their ongoing research needs, many supervisors are training employees in essential jobs on how to stay safe while providing the best service to the community, and the College has jointly sponsored, with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, two public presentations by Dr. Kathy Kirkland of the infectious disease unit on the subject of avian flu. Future presentations will include sessions on general emergency preparedness for individuals and families.

While there is no indication at the moment that the avian flu virus will gain the ability to readily infect humans, the nature of our campus environment and our location demand that we plan ahead and plan wisely. A special Web site has been created that contains background information on avian flu and pandemic preparedness. If there are significant new developments, the site will be updated immediately. The site also contains answers to questions on individual preparedness planning.

For more information on avian flu, see the World Health Organization and the U.S. Government's Web sites.

By LAUREL STAVIS

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08