Campus & Community

‘What if’ planning for bird flu outbreak under way

4 min read

(University holds meeting of local emergency management teams)

Although there have not yet been any reports anywhere of human-to-human transmission of avian influenza, administrators from across the University gathered at Maxwell-Dworkin on Monday (Dec. 5) for a two-hour presentation by the University’s Incident Support Team (IST) to further planning for dealing with a possible pandemic of the bird flu.

The event brought together local emergency management team members from various Schools and departments to hear presentations by the IST on a draft Pandemic Illness Emergency Plan intended to guide planning across the University. The IST is part of an already existing University emergency response structure in place to help manage various crises that periodically occur on campus, ranging from snow emergencies to occasional incidents that affect the health and safety of the Harvard community.

More information

The IST’s work on bird flu is included in the University’s ongoing emergency planning activities because experts at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) are warning that, while not a current reality, such a pandemic is possible in the next few years. Additionally, the federal government has warned of a flu pandemic within the next two years and is asking that planning begin in this area. The spread of avian influenza is currently in Phase three of a six-phase framework of pandemic illness used by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Phase three is the lowest step in what is termed the “pandemic alert period,” with a new flu type detected and human infections occurring, but with infections coming directly from the flu’s animal source – in this case birds – with no human-to-human transmission.

Human-to-human transmission would trigger Phase 4, while the rapid spread of the illness would mark Phase 5, and an actual pandemic – worldwide spread of the disease at epidemic levels – would mark Phase 6. Prior planning would be critical for managing a pandemic of a new flu type.

The IST effort at this point is aimed at creating background information about the flu; answering people’s questions; monitoring any changes in the flu’s makeup; coordinating with local and regional governmental response networks; and creating flexible, responsive plans for various scenarios, from isolated outbreaks thousands of miles away that might affect study abroad and travel policies, to a broad pandemic that could have a direct impact on University operations.

The University’s primary goal is protecting the health of the Harvard community, followed by maintaining essential services to the University’s resident population, sustaining research activities including lab work in progress and the care of research animals, protecting the University’s physical and intellectual assets, and returning the University to normal operations as quickly as possible.

University Health Services Director David Rosenthal told the group that a Medical Advisory Committee on Avian Flu has been formed to advise top University officials in real time about the medical aspects of the flu – in case of such an emergency, and to explore what Harvard research efforts might be targeted now toward learning more about the flu. Its members are: Paul Biddinger, director of the Scientific Core, HSPH Center for Public Health Preparedness; Ashton B. Carter, Ford Foundation Professor of Science and International Affairs, KSG; Howard Koh, associate dean for public health practice, HSPH; Marc Lipsitch, associate professor of epidemiology, HSPH; and Megan Murray, assistant professor of epidemiology, HSPH.

There will be a university-wide “table-top” exercise in February involving the IST and the Local Emergency Management Teams, to help test the emergency plan and make any necessary improvements.

Presenters at Monday’s event included Rosenthal; Biddinger, who gave an update on bird flu’s status; and representatives from University Operations Services, University Information Systems, Harvard University Police, Student Affairs, the Harvard Office of News and Public Affairs, and the Office of Human Resources.

For more information about the bird flu, see the University Health Services Web site: