August 11. 2008
The federal government would need to quarantine infected households and ban public gatherings to contain pandemic flu, according to a computer simulation study conducted by researchers from Virginia Tech and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“You wouldn’t go out to the movies. You wouldn’t congregate with people,” said researcher Stephen Eubank. “You’d pretty much be staying home with the doors and windows battened down.”
The consensus among health experts is that a pandemic, or global epidemic, of influenza is inevitable. The last such pandemic, in 1918, killed between 40 and 100 million people.
Because of the belief that a pandemic cannot be avoided, researchers are instead looking into ways to limit its effects. In the current study, researchers used a computer to model the hypothetical spread of flu pandemic in the city of Chicago under various containment scenarios. They found that a vigorous early response could reduce the infection rate by 80 percent.
“Depending on how fast it is spreading, it seems as though you really need to throw everything you can at it,” Eubank said.
Under the containment scenario, people infected with or exposed to the disease would be confined to their homes, and schools and day-care centers would be shut down, as would places of public gathering like bars, restaurants and theaters. Offices and factories would remain open but would operate at reduced capacity due to quarantines.
The extreme measures would need to continue for months, until a vaccine was developed.
“We are not talking about simply shutting things down for a day or two like a snow day,” Eubank said. “It’s a sustained period for weeks or months.”
The computer model assumed widespread compliance with the response plan, but Eubank says he doesn’t anticipate that as a problem.
“In the context of a very infectious disease that is killing a large number of the people, I think large fractions of the population won’t have a problem with these recommendations,” he said.