Faith Takes a Front Seat in Planning for Flu Pandemic

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Fairfax County houses of worship are starting to plan for the unthinkable but possible: a pandemic flu that could sweep the country, sickening and killing millions.

More than 125 leaders from churches, synagogues, temples and mosques met recently at the Fairfax County Government Center to grapple with questions ranging from the practical to the theological as they began preparing their communities for the possibility of a flu outbreak.

Houses of worship could play a crucial role in managing such an epidemic, say religious leaders and health officials, because they have such large constituencies and are intimately involved in the daily life of the community. Not only are they gathering places for hundreds of thousands of parishioners and groups such as Scouts and senior citizens, but they also minister to the disadvantaged.

It is "a substantial religious network that, if properly organized with the right kind of spirit, can have a tremendous positive impact on helping to do our part to ensure domestic tranquility," said Lewis Saylor, a member of Faith Communities in Action, a coalition of diverse religious organizations that organized the meeting last month with the Fairfax County Health Department and the county's Community Interfaith Office.

The meeting comes as public officials step up preparations for a possible flu pandemic, which could occur if an influenza virus mutates into a deadly version for which vaccines and drugs are not immediately available.

Previous flu epidemics, of which the most recent was in 1968, have killed millions, and many scientists predict that it is only a matter of time before another breaks out. Health officials say it is possible that avian flu will become this generation's pandemic because the virus that causes it is highly flexible.

Health officials have painted a vivid portrait of life in the grip of a massive flu outbreak. They envision waves of the illness possibly breaking over the population for as long as 18 months, affecting one-third of the population. Nationally, as many as 207,000 people could die in a "medium-level" pandemic and up to 47 million people could become sick, they say.

Virginia is in better shape than most states in getting ready for the outbreak, researchers say. A recent study by the Trust for America's Health rated Virginia as one of the top 14 states in terms of preparedness for health emergencies such as bioterrorism or pandemic flu.

Nonetheless, a flu epidemic would extract a devastating toll on the state. Studies suggest that a medium-level pandemic could kill as many as 6,300 people in Virginia, sicken as many as 2.5 million and send as many as 28,500 to the hospital -- depleting the supply of beds within two weeks, according to the state Department of Health. A flu pandemic would also be expected to deal a crippling blow to the state's economy, as millions of the healthy would be quarantined and sidelined by the need to care for ill family members.

Funds have started to flow to states. Virginia has received $5.45 million from the federal government for preparedness in this fiscal year, said state Health Department spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell. Of that, Fairfax has received $293,000, she said. The money is allocated to localities based on population.

A 19-page guide prepared by Saylor for houses of worship lays out some of the scenarios they need to prepare for.

Because the virus can be spread primarily through coughing, sneezing and physical contact, practical concerns for religious communities are myriad: how spiritual leaders should deal with last rites, funerals, marriages and other ceremonies if large gatherings are discouraged; who would back up clergy infected by the flu; and alternatives to shaking hands and passing the peace during worship services.

There are also theological considerations: Religious leaders would have to deal with questions from parishioners such as "why God allows disease" and "why innocent people die."

The Muslim community has begun to grapple with many of these issues. Leaders want to ensure that preparations follow Islamic law and want to head off misunderstandings and misplaced fears among Muslims, said Johari Abdul-Malik, imam of the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, who attended the meeting last month.

For example, he said, some Muslims avoid hand sanitizers because of religious prohibitions against the use of alcohol. However, he said, exceptions can be made in extreme circumstances.

Islamic burial practices, which require the washing of a body and quick burial, could also be modified. Many Muslims might not know that, under Islamic law, the bodies of victims of a pandemic do not need to be handled in such a way, he said.

"We are looking to say we have to begin the public education of our community to tell them that the thinking will be easier, that rules will be relaxed during the pandemic and what are the limits of that relaxation," Abdul-Malik said.

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