Tested before, Houston's ready

April 27, 2009 6:33:49 PM PDT
Is Houston ready to handle an outbreak of the swine flu? Health scares are unfortunately not all that new and Houston's been expecting a flu outbreak for years. [SWINE FLU: Symptoms, questions and answers and more]
[INTERACTIVE MAP: Map and timeline of swine flu cases]

"We think we're pretty well prepared," said Dr. David Persse, medical director with the Houston Fire Department. "Now, we have to see what the virus does."

Dr. Persse is helping roll out Houston' s emergency plan, one well rehearsed since the 2002-2003 deadly SARS outbreak in Asia. There, nearly 800 people died over a nine-month time period.

We're just four weeks out from the earliest reported swine flu cases in Mexico, so we shouldn't be too at ease that Houston's been spared so far.

"Could we make it through this without a case? Sure, that's possible," said Dr. Persse. "But I am going to make the assumption today that we're going to have one and I am preparing for it."

And when or if that happens, it may be time to make tough decisions.

Dr. Scott Lillibridge is the director of the National Center for Emergency Medical Preparedness and Response at Texas A&M Health Science Center.

"The hard decisions that come up are the decisions about closing schools," he said.

Because if schools in Houston close, as they did when other Texas districts had cases, it would leave close to 200,000 Houston kids without a place to go. That would have huge effects on health, sure, but with that many parents at home, it would have huge impacts on the economy, as well.

As would closing the border.

If trucks stop coming across from Mexico, so does much of the food you eat. And what happens if the swine flu spreads wildly?

"Hospitalization," said Dr. Lillibridge. "Who gets access to the health care?"

But those decisions will hopefully never have to be made. Local health departments are confident they may be on top of the swine flu locally, thanks to years of planning.

"We learned a couple things from SARS. One is that aggressive, early action to stop transmission is extremely important," said Dr. Lillibridge.

Everyone we spoke with on Monday says we're very early on. There could be weeks, if not months, of this virus to come.

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