By Marc Gilbert
Killeen Daily Herald
Explaining his current assignment of crisis management planning for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, retired Lt. Gen. Pete Taylor on Friday stressed the importance of developing a personal plan of action in the event of a widespread flu outbreak.
"If you think the federal government is going to ride in on a white horse, let me disabuse you of that idea," Taylor said in a presentation at the Killeen Heights Rotary weekly meeting. "The federal government is working it and working it hard, but they are a long way from it.
"You need to have your own plan, each of us with our families."
Taylor, who served as commander of III Corps and Fort Hood from 1991-93, is a program manager for government services contractor MPRI charged with developing an operational response plan for the CDC.
The CDC's focus traditionally has been an academic one, he said. That changed following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and in the years since.
"They had to become a crisis management operation. They had to deal with anthrax after 9/11. They had to deal with SARS. And they've had to deal with a number of other operations around the world."
The center was adept at dealing with small or isolated outbreaks of disease,
he said, but it was not originally intended to respond to widespread disruptions caused by disease or biological agents.
Taylor said his role of leading a staff of about 25 in planning, crisis management, and developing exercises and training simulation is like being a "platoon leader" again.
"We take what they tell us and operationalize it. We put it in a plan."
Taylor said the level of preparation is warranted because, as history shows, influenza outbreaks are not a question of if, but of when.
Worldwide pandemics have occurred about every 35 to 40 years, he said, citing the 1918-19 flu that killed 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States, and the 1957 strain that killed 70,000 nationally and 2 million worldwide.
He said vaccines that the CDC develops for each flu season are the nation's best line of defense, calling them a "silver bullet" and encouraging people to get them before flu season each October.
Taylor also addressed the topic of avian flu and why the virus, transmitted primarily among bird species, receives such attention in the media.
"It's a virus that seems to have the greatest capacity to mutate into a pandemic strain. What happens in the birds is terribly important," said Taylor, adding that all past influenza pandemics have come from avian strains, such as the H5N1, after mutating into a human pathogen.
The H5N1 strain has proven especially deadly, he said. Of the 300 reported cases of humans being infected by the strain, more than 190 have died.
"That's a very high mortality rate," he said. "It's between 55 and 65 percent mortality rate – people who get the disease succumb to the disease. So you can imagine, if we had millions of people infected and they died at that rate, what an impact that would be on the world."
Compounding the threat is the amount of time it would take to develop a vaccine once a human strain emerged. Taylor said it would take the CDC between six and eight months to produce a vaccine using current technology. Because an outbreak of that magnitude would produce significant disruption in even everyday routines, individual preparedness plans are important, said Taylor, projecting what the effect might look like in Killeen.
"You need to have about three weeks of supplies," he said. "It's going to go through Killeen over a three- to four-week period. And the people running water departments, the people running stores, the people running schools, the people running all kinds of things are going to be subject to 40 percent absenteeism. I suggest you work on taking care of yourself."
For more information on preparing for a widespread flu outbreak, go online to www.pandemicflu.gov.
"All the scientists, including the director of CDC, say that there will be a pandemic; we just don't know when," Taylor said.
Contact Marc Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7541