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Prelude to pandemic?

A deadly new strain of influenza that has claimed lives in Mexico and continues to spread is reason enough for people in Butler County to be concerned, said EMA Bob Luman.

Swine Flu, which has killed 150 people in Mexico and has caused outbreaks in several states in the U.S., has been declared a public health emergency by the federal government.

“I hope people are paying attention,” said Luman. “As far as what’s going to happen today or tomorrow, we don’t know, but as of right now we don’t have any confirmed cases so there’s not really a lot we can do.”

But some experts fear the virus could grow into a pandemic, the first since the “Hong Kong Flu” in 1968-69. A far worse scenario would be the continued evolution of the virus into a more virulent form similar to the 1918-19 “Spanish Flu,” which is estimated to have killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide.

Still, given that the situation is evolving, Luman said there’s no reason for people to panic. Cases involving people in the U.S. have been much less severe than in Mexico, and only one person has been hospitalized.

Luman said Butler County officials have been preparing for the past three years for an outbreak of this sort, with monthly, then quarterly, pandemic planning sessions. Those involved, he said, included elected officials, healthcare personnel, as well as emergency responders such as the police and fire department.

Should an outbreak of Swine Flu occur in Butler County, Luman said the health department would be in charge of administering masks, and prescription drugs, such as Tamiflu, which has been helpful in fighting off this current influenza strain.

“It would be based on the outbreak and number of people involved,” said Luman. “I don’t anticipate a mass distribution because there wouldn’t be enough.”

First responders, doctors and nurses would be the first to receive the drugs and masks, said Luman.

Extreme emergency actions, such as shutting down schools to limit contact between people, would be made by the governor’s office, said Luman.

Superintendent Mike Looney said school nurses are monitoring students for any indication of flu-like symptoms. He said parents would be receiving a packet on the Swine Flu in their child’s Thursday folders.

“We’re taking a proactive approach to this,” said Looney.

Looney said closing schools would delay graduation and the end of the school year.

Luman encouraged people to use common sense

“Cover your mouth when you cough and your nose when you sneeze, wash your hands…start thinking more about protecting yourself and your family,” he said.