By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO, March 10 (Reuters) - Containing an influenza pandemic in a large U.S. city like Chicago would require widespread school closings, quarantines of infected households and bans on public gatherings, U.S. researchers said on Monday.
But, if done quickly and well, such steps could reduce infections by as much as 80 percent, said researcher Stephen Eubank of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, based on a computer simulation of just such an event.
"If you implement it early and people comply, you can save a lot of people. You can make it look a lot more like a seasonal flu than the 1918 pandemic," said Eubank, referring to a global flu epidemic that started in 1918 and killed between 40 million and 100 million people.
Health experts almost universally agree that a global epidemic -- a pandemic -- of influenza is inevitable. Flu is always circulating but, every few decades, a completely new strain emerges and makes millions sicker than usual.
Government estimates suggest vaccines and drugs will not be enough to slow or prevent a flu pandemic, and the U.S. pandemic plan includes ways to limit the spread by closing schools and implementing strategies to reduce contact with infected people.
Eubank led one of three teams of scientists who ran computer simulations to see if drug and social containment efforts could slow the spread of an influenza pandemic in a major U.S. city such as Chicago, which has a population of about 8.6 million people.
All three teams found that a combination of antiviral drugs -- such as Roche AG ROG.VX and Gilead Sciences Inc.'s (GILD.O) Tamiflu -- and social distancing efforts would be needed to slow the spread of a pandemic flu, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Depending on how fast it is spreading, it seems as though you really need to throw everything you can at it," Eubank said in a telephone interview.
NOT LIKE A SNOW DAY
The so-called social distancing measures they studied would dramatically alter the life of the city for a period of months -- long enough, Eubank said, for vaccine makers to develop a vaccine.
Schools and day-care centers would close. Theaters, bars, restaurants and ball parks would be shuttered.
Offices and factories would be open but hobbled as workers stay home to care for children. Infected people and their friends and families would be confined to their homes.
"We are not talking about simply shutting things down for a day or two like a snow day. It's a sustained period for weeks or months," he said.
"You wouldn't go out to the movies. You wouldn't congregate with people. You'd pretty much be staying home with the doors and windows battened down," he said.
While those measures seem draconian, Eubank said they are steps many people would take on their own in the face of a deadly flu outbreak.
"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," Eubank said.
He said that the models in the study are tools that suggest what could be done to slow a pandemic, but a lot of the pandemic plan's success would rely on the efforts of individuals to protect themselves and others from infection.
The study is available here (Editing by Maggie Fox and Jackie Frank)