On the front lines with the avian flu

Professor Sharon Martin gets proactive

Sharon Martin

Last summer professor Sharon Martin was preparing for her Community Health Nursing course when she discovered she had to make avian flu not only the focus of the class period on emerging diseases, but her own professional focus, as well. That's because when she searched the nursing journals, she could find no mention of the flu - despite the fact that it could be "devastating and life-altering" if human-to-human transmission creates a world-wide epidemic, or pandemic.

Alarmed by the seeming lack of discussion in the broader nursing community, she began her own campaign to spread the word about a virus that could spread widely and rapidly. If the virus ends up transmitting from human to human, Martin says nurses will be on the front lines. "They need to know the symptoms, so they can protect themselves and their patients," she says. "Otherwise, they become part of the contagion."

Before addressing the nursing community, the first thing Martin did was talk to Dan Sheridan, the academic dean at Saint Joseph's, to alert him about the potential flu crisis. As a result, a campus preparedness plan has been developed.

Martin launched her campaign to alert nurses with an article on avian flu in the January issue of Home Healthcare Nurse, which prompted an invitation for her to lecture at the National Association for Home Care and Hospice (NAHC) conference in Washington, D.C. She also published an article in Home Health Line, which goes to every home health agency in the United States, and prepared three articles for the statewide ANA/Maine newsletter. She also began to survey nurses through the newsletter to see how much they knew about avian flu. Very little, she found out.

"I've taken this on. It's my goal to get nurses informed." says Professor Sharon Martin. 

In September, she will publish another article in Home Healthcare Nurse and in October she will speak both at the New York State Association of Heath Care Providers convention and at the 25th Annual Meeting of NAHC. Awareness could help contain the flu to one region, she adds. "With SARS, they weren't looking for it in Toronto and it got out of hand."

How big is the threat? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization say the possibility of human-to-human transmission (through hugging, kissing, sneezing and coughing) is high in the coming year.

While both agencies take a proactive stand, Martin says there is no evidence to support the notion that the federal government would respond quickly.

"The feds are planning, but we can't rely on them," she notes. In 1918 when the last flu pandemic hit, President Woodrow Wilson never mentioned the gravity of the situation, despite the fact that almost 2 million Americans died. With the AIDS pandemic, President Ronald Reagan did not react quickly and let it get out of hand, according to Martin.

Even those who don't get sick could have their lives disrupted drastically. Quarantine and social distancing would likely become the norm. "When someone had scarlet fever in the '40s and '50s, they use to nail up a sign on the front door to warn people to stay away," says Martin.

Each family needs to be prepared with emergency supplies such as cash, food and water, she says. If a pandemic occurs, social order and services break down. Picture Katrina, but on a worldwide scale, Martin says.

Despite her concern about the threat, Martin believes doom and gloom only make people feel overwhelmed and less likely to do anything. She recommends taking small, simple steps to be prepared: Get the regular human flu shot, go to www.pandemicflu.gov to learn more; go over the CDC checklists and be prepared.