By Jeanne Sager
WASHINGTON, DC April 21, 2006 When the subject of pandemic flu came up in our nations capital, senators addressed their questions to a Sullivan County official.
Carol Ryan, head of public health nursing for the county, was one of several health experts called upon by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee earlier this month to present her thoughts on preparing for a worldwide flu outbreak.
Ryan, who has been with the county department for more than 17 years, is also president of the New York State Association of County Health Officials.
It was through the association that she was chosen by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to speak to the issues of local preparedness for an unknown threat.
Traditionally, every so many years there is a new variation of flu that nobody in the world has any immunity to at all, Ryan explained
Theres no way of knowing what strain of the virus will begin circulating, how it will mutate and how it will respond to treatment.
Further complicating the matter is the threat of avian flu which has been contracted by several humans and could spread to even more at some point in the future, Ryan said.
With the local departments difficulty in securing the flu vaccine over the past few years, Ryan said shes become intimately familiar with some of the challenges that a pandemic flu could present.
Her department is working with other emergency agencies in the county to develop a local plan for pandemic flu and hers is lead agency on the project because of the health concerns.
The county has done drills and held tabletop discussions in the past to prepare them for facing these types of issues, she said.
When she headed to the U.S. Capitol building on April 6, Ryan was well-prepared to present her take on what she called a non-partisan issue.
Ryan was frank in her address.
Local public health, in its current state, will not be in a position to singlehandedly address a large pandemic, she said. We need to prove that we value the health of our population by funding disease prevention and health promotion much more generously so that a very strong public health infrastructure is in place and able to quickly and effectively react to all health crises as well as day-to-day public health needs.
In Sullivan County, Ryan said there has always been a focus on disease prevention.
The public health department in Sullivan County has long promoted education, she said, from encouraging people in high-risk groups (people who are at a higher risk for serious complications from the flu, not at a higher risk of contracting the virus) to get vaccinated to promoting basic hygiene.
Still, Ryan sees pandemic flu creating a strain on infrastructure throughout the society not just for the public health departments themselves.
We need strong risk communication messages NOW, consistent from the federal and state levels, she told the Senators.
The goal of the meeting in Washington was to move from debate to action, according to the invitation from Senators Clinton and Harry Reid (the Democratic leader in the Senate).