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Churches, members can take bird flu precautions

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Kathy Griffith

May 15, 2006

By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) — At a time when the U.S. government is drafting plans on how it would deal with a massive outbreak of bird flu or another virulent strain of influenza, United Methodists can prepare themselves as well.

Kathy Griffith, staff member with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, believes the denomination can encourage preventive measures against a flu pandemic and use churches or church-related facilities as centers of care and treatment where outbreaks occur. “We're all over the world, in many different situations, with hearts to serve,” she told United Methodist News Service in a May interview.

Fear over a large-scale outbreak of what has been called bird flu or avian flu prompted the Bush administration to make such public health preparations as stockpiling vaccines and anti-flu medications and creating a pandemic flu plan. A draft of the plan, released May 3, forecasts massive disruptions in everyday life if such an outbreak occurred.

Influenza A viruses are usually found in birds but more than 200 confirmed cases of human infection have been reported since 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms in humans can range from fever or a cough to eye infections to pneumonia and other life-threatening complications.

The current outbreak in Asia and Europe of the H5N1 avian influenza virus has led to deaths in more than half of the people infected, mostly children and young adults, the CDC has reported. However, it is not known if all cases have been reported.

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A UMNS Photo by James Gathany, CDC

Dr. Terrence Tumpey, with the National Center for Infectious Diseases, examines specimens of the 1918 Pandemic Influenza Virus.

The big concern, according to the CDC, is that the H5N1 virus will change and allow for easy human-to-human transmission. In such a case, a pandemic could occur. “Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population,” the CDC says.

Since December 2003, animal H5N1 cases have been reported in a large number of countries in Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, South Asia and the Near East.

Human cases have been reported by the World Health Organization in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.

Part of the prevention effort has to do with adjusting living situations to lessen the occurrence of animal-to-human or human-to-human virus transmission. Griffith, who has trained community health workers in parts of Asia, attended a course on behavior change in Thailand in January. Such change, she learned, can be slow in coming.

In central Asia, for example, animals routinely sleep in the kitchen ? a room where childbirth also takes place. And in both Asia and Africa, Griffith pointed out “people are far more community-oriented than in the West” and live together in close quarters.

Griffith noted that while church communities can help respond to a bird flu crisis, their members need to remember they are equally at risk.

Prevention strategies for virus transmission include following basic hygiene measures, such as vigorous hand washing and taking precautions when handling eggs and raw chicken. If handled and cooked properly, poultry and eggs pose no threat for transmission, according to the CDC. The United States has had a ban on importing poultry from countries affected by avian flu viruses since 2004.

Griffith suggested that eggs should be fresh, washed on the outside and cooked well. Before and after handling raw poultry and eggs, wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, the CDC recommends. Cutting boards and utensils also need to be cleaned with soap and hot water.

“If you’ve been to a bazaar where you buy chickens, wash your shoes,” Griffith said. “It’s these market and preparation issues and cooking issues that are very real in a developing country and could be real here (in the United States).”

In church settings in countries where bird flu has surfaced, members can offer another type of greeting aside from shaking hands or hugging. Ways should be found to limit physical contact during the sharing of communion and the passing of offering plates, attendance registers and other items should be discouraged.

Churches and church-related facilities should provide ample soap, hand sanitizer, tissues and trash receptacles for visitors, members and staff. Trash cans with used tissues should be handled using glove and mask precautions and trash should be burned regularly.

Water fountains can be shut off and toys and nursery equipment sanitized on a regular basis. If needed, the nursery, day care and children’s Sunday school should be closed.

Information is crucial to the prevention and spread of disease and church facilities can be used as distribution centers for such information. Churches also can provide space for vaccinations and treatments.

Pastoral care visits to infected patients also require precautions, such as the use of masks and gloves. Church communities can assist affected families by running errands, providing meals or offering other services.

If the bird flu became prevalent enough in an area to cause a ban on large-group gatherings, congregations could divide into smaller groups, Griffith said. Outdoor worship also may be an option.

Progress can be made against avian flu, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Vietnam, for example, which has had more confirmed human cases and deaths than any other country ? 93 cases and 42 deaths between 2003 and 2005 ? has had no confirmed human cases since November 2005.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

Audio Interview
Kathy Griffith:
"Avian flu is becoming a huge threat in our time."
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