In Drill, CDC Practices For Influenza Pandemic

Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Mitchell Cohen confer during a large-scale exercise in Atlanta to see how well the agency would react to pandemic flu. Many experts believe the H5N1 strain of bird flu could cause such an outbreak.
Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Mitchell Cohen confer during a large-scale exercise in Atlanta to see how well the agency would react to pandemic flu. Many experts believe the H5N1 strain of bird flu could cause such an outbreak. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)

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By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007

ATLANTA -- A 22-year-old Georgetown University swim team member just back from Indonesia eats dinner with his teammates but then develops a fever and doesn't accompany them to a meet in New York.

That is how a flu pandemic in the United States started.

A winter storm bears down on saltless and plowless Atlanta, closing schools and scaring commuters.

That is how it ended.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a pandemic "war game" here last week but aborted it at midnight Wednesday, halfway through its planned 24-hour run. The reason -- ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly -- was concern about public safety. CDC did not want a hundred of its most valuable employees rushing on Thursday morning over ice-slick roads to a mock disaster.

A real pandemic, which is considered inevitable, won't be stopped by weather, which in this case turned out to be mostly rain. In fact, it probably won't be stopped by anything. But public health experts believe it could be made less disastrous with practice and preparation.

For that reason, CDC's director, Julie L. Gerberding, who spent Wednesday facing nail-biting pseudo-decisions -- and made the real one to call things off -- was happy with half a pandemic.

"The long-frame view is that this was a tremendous success. We exercised, we learned and we are definitely committed to this process," she said when it was over.

The federal government is hard at work trying to ready the country for a global outbreak of a new, highly transmissible strain of influenza -- a pandemic. Such events occur at unpredictable intervals. There were three in the last century, in 1918-19, 1957 and 1968.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza, or bird flu, has killed millions of birds and 164 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003. It does not pass from person to person efficiently. But it is highly lethal and still evolving; many experts believe it has the potential to cause a pandemic.

Last week's exercise was conducted by MPRI, an Alexandria-based consultant with a $7 million contract to help CDC plan for pandemic flu. Founded in 1987 as Military Professionals Resources Inc., the company is run principally by retired officers.

Horace G. "Pete" Taylor, a retired Army lieutenant general, led a team of 24 people who wrote the outbreak scenario, "injected" new information as the exercise ran, played the roles of non-CDC decision makers, and are now helping the agency analyze its performance. Taylor, 69, used to run war games at the Pentagon.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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