LEXINGTON PARK, Md. Interest in avian flu seems to have waned recently, but its threat is still present in several rural areas, principally in the Orient. A previously unknown and dangerous strain of the H5N1 bird flu has emerged from southern China and has spread from birds to people in Southeast Asia, marking a third wave of avian flu and rekindling fears of a global pandemic.
Medical researchers appear to be making progress toward producing vaccines and medications that may someday prevent and/or treat the disease, but it is unlikely that the United States or any other nation will be well prepared should there be an extensive outbreak of the disease in the near future.
Since avian flu will be spread throughout the population in many of the same ways that other strains of flu are spread, an experiment might be conducted during the current flu season that could lead to a set of measures to help contain the spread of avian flu should it become pandemic in the United States.
This experiment could be conducted at relatively low expense by selecting two similar communities in Rhode Island for study and encouraging the population of one of these communities to carry out a special anti-flu campaign while the population of the second community is asked to proceed through the flu season in its traditional manner.
Residents of the counter-flu community would be asked to voluntarily wear surgical masks throughout the one-month test period whenever they are outside of their homes, especially when they are in malls and other public sites or are using public transportation. If the experiment is sponsored by a governmental authority or by a private foundation or nongovernmental organization, the surgical masks might be provided free at convenient locations or sold at reduced cost through pharmacies and other outlets.
The second phase of this experiment would consist of a campaign by local governments, institutions and businesses to disinfect door handles and other surfaces touched frequently by large numbers of workers, customers and others throughout working hours. Medical and public-health authorities would propose the most effective means of accomplishing this and, again, if government or nongovernmental organizations are sponsoring the overall campaign, the appropriate materials might be made available at convenient locations at no cost or at reduced cost.
Businesses, schools, public-transportation facilities, libraries and other institutions would be encouraged to establish teams of personnel assigned and trained in the most effective techniques for disinfecting the surfaces that are touched frequently. Appropriate intervals for disinfecting these surfaces would be prescribed by the public-health authorities.
The third phase of this experiment would consist of providing an antiseptic hand lotion to any personnel desiring it. The lotion could be provided at various locations where free dispensers could be installed, in schools, at retail stores, mass-transit facilities and in restaurant and office restrooms. This hand-cleansing service is already available throughout the nation in grocery stores such as Whole Foods.
The fourth phase of the experiment would consist of regular reminders in the local newspaper and in prominently displayed posters throughout the city: "This is the flu season. Your fingers are quite likely to encounter millions of flu viruses. Don't transmit these viruses to your eyes or nose, and wash your hands frequently."
Although the statistics on cases of flu reported to hospitals and clinics are readily available and may be sufficient to evaluate the effectiveness of this counter-flu campaign, it might be advisable to encourage any resident in the two cities who experiences unmistakable flu symptoms to provide this information to the public-health authorities.If the Rhode Island counter-flu community turns out to have significantly fewer cases of flu over a typical flu season, a national plan for countering avian flu should incorporate these four procedures.
Clayton Conger is a senior program analyst with Wyle Laboratories and a consultant to the Navy.