Recently, I met a Christian executive whose grandfather lost his twin brother to the flu pandemic of 1918 that took 50 million lives globally. I myself was quarantined for two weeks in the college chapel at Cascade College in Portland during the 1957 flu pandemic. That strain only cost 2 million lives around the world.
Are we ready for the “next big one”—the potential pandemic of H5N1 or “avian flu”? Undoubtedly, you’ve read about the epidemic among poultry in Asia that has resulted in the wholesale slaughter of infected fowl in Vietnam, Thailand, and China. Nearly 200 people have contracted the infection and 90 have died. In the last few months, the flu has spread to countries in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. It is only a question of time before it reaches North America.
When Katrina hit last year, churches were among the first responders. One of the under-reported outcomes of Hurricane Katrina is that churches around the United States are training disaster preparedness teams—and many are currently tooling themselves to respond to the avian flu.
Public health experts are deeply concerned at how easily the avian flu could morph into a human-to-human flu virus. We have nothing in our immune system that will recognize this new strain. As a consequence we could see a new human flu pandemic that could become global in a matter of weeks—and continue in waves around the world for 12 to 18 months.
Industry is leading the way in preparedness and taking counter-measures against this particular flu strain by developing effective virucidal agents. A number of local governments, such as King County, Washington, have developed comprehensive plans that could involve shutting down the entire region as long as three months at a time.
HOWEVER, I HAVE HEARD of too few Christian organizations doing preparedness planning for a possible flu pandemic. At the request of the leadership at the Christian humanitarian organization World Concern, I conducted a two-day scenario forecasting process for their staff who work in international development. During the sessions they designed a disaster preparedness plan for their work in Thailand and Kenya for pre-pandemic, pandemic, and post-pandemic phases. Subsequently they have used the process as a template for preparedness plans in other countries where they serve.
Here in the United States, I would urge local churches to contact their city and county governments and work with them to develop plans for neighborhood preparedness, particularly in poorer communities that tend to be left behind in times of crisis.
Resources are available that can help churches and organizations prepare for this possible pandemic. Check regularly with the epidemic and pandemic alert response at the World Health Organization (www.who.int/csr/en) to keep tabs on the spread of the avian flu globally. Additionally, distribute to people in your church and community the “Pandemic Flu Planning Checklist for Individuals and Families,” available in both Spanish and English, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (www.pandemicflu.gov). This site contains checklists tailored for faith-based and community organizations, hospitals and clinics, and schools. Finally, Mustard Seed Associates (www.msainfo.org), the organization I co-founded, has a document that can enable your church to make a difference during a possible avian flu pandemic or natural disaster; we will e-mail it to you at your request.
National Public Radio has reported that an avian flu pandemic could seriously disrupt our “just in time” global response systems and suggests we stock a three-month supply of food and medicines. For those working with the poor, this is a huge challenge that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Living in increasingly uncertain times, people of faith need to learn to be proactive instead of reactive for the sake of those we have been called to serve.
Tom Sine is co-founder of Mustard Seed Associates (www.msainfo.org).