The bishop for Arizona’s Episcopalians has called on his churches to be prepared for an outbreak of bird flu. And should there never be an epidemic, they’d be better poised for other catastrophes — such as terrorism or severe storms.
In a newly released pastoral letter, Bishop Kirk Stevan Smith said he was convening a diocesan emergency preparedness committee of experts to help the Episcopal faith community respond to bird flu and other disasters. Parishes are urged to develop their own response plans, and parishioners to prepare their homes.
“We expect that should such a crisis arise, churches will be called upon to take the lead in serving the needs of our communities. That will require planning and organization,” Smith said.
The World Health Organization reports 247 cases of avian influenza since 2003, leading to 144 deaths. All have been in Asia and the Middle East, led by 93 cases in Vietnam. The contagious disease is caused by viruses that normally infect only birds and, less commonly, pigs, but it has crossed over to infect and kill humans. A highly pathogenic form can move swiftly through poultry flocks. It is believed that people have been most commonly affected from contact with bird waste, WHO reports. A pandemic could occur if a new influenza “subtype” were to emerge and mutate into a form for which there is no developed vaccine, it says.
“If a true pandemic would hit, obviously the health care industry is totally overwhelmed,” said Jim Davis, who spent almost 35 years as a health care administrator and now directs the Center for Health and Reconciliation at St. Anthony on the Desert Episcopal Church in Scottsdale.
“Where do people go if you can’t go to a hospital, if you can’t get 911 to answer? They go to their faith facility,” he said
It’s been predicted that “churches, synagogues and others would have people coming to their parking lots, saying ‘help,’ because you turn to your faith organization, but we are not prepared with a health pandemic response,” Davis said. In May, he organized a disaster preparedness seminar for the faith community, which attracted about 100. He is planning others.
Along with the bishop’s letter to parishes, the brochure, “Be Ready for Anything: Suggest Family Emergency Preparedness,” is going to parishioners. Aimed to all levels of emergencies from power outages to “pandemic outbreaks and terrorism,” it suggests first-aid items and practical items such as a manual can opener, leather gloves, a whistle and extra batteries. It suggests a two-week supply of water and nonperishable food. And there is wide advice on water filters, which refrigerated items to eat first and being stocked with prescription drugs.
People are called on to develop their own family plan that all members of the household understand and are prepared to follow.
“If we start now, our families and churches will be selfsufficient enough to face any eventuality,” Smith said in his letter (www.episcopalaz.org).
Parish halls, classrooms and sanctuaries would need to be turned into treatment centers. In a pandemic, Davis said, worship services, like other public gatherings, would have to be suspended to minimize person-toperson contamination.
Apathy, Davis said, is the greatest hurdle to getting people and their faith communities to prepare.
“There is apathy out there to a pandemic,” he said. “Experts will tell you if a pandemic hits full bore, more people would die within the first year than have died, to date, from AIDS.”