Iowa’s Public Health Director assured state legislators Wednesday that Iowa is ready to handle a flu outbreak. Doctor Mary Mincer Hansen says key to handling a major disease outbreak are surveillance, communication and public education. The communication happens through the “Health Alert Network,” which lets them send pages, faxes, or e-mails to hundreds of recipients at the same time.

A message can be sent out in a matter of minutes to hospitals and local public-health offices, letting them know what’s going on — and the nice thing about the system is, they can report back to the state health agency, telling what they’re seeing. Hansen adds the department’s also purchased special frequency radios which will let them communicate with local police and the federal government. Hansen says her department is continuously monitoring hospital cases for signs of a pandemic, watching for trends and ready to send out an alert.

Doctors who are working during the regular flu season see people who come in sick and then they have flu symptoms the docs take blood samples, send them to the state health lab and the Centers for Disease Control. Hansen says the department has a plan drawn up for what’ll happen if and when a public-health alert goes out. She says if it happens, we don’t want to be trying to figure out who’s doing what. So what the plan helps us do is know ahead of time, if this happens, this is what we’ll do.

Another part of the plan is education, letting people know what they can do to protect themselves in case of a pandemic. She says they can get a booklet by going to the agency’s website, “Protect Iowa Health – dot-org.” Dr. Hansen says while Iowa’s seen some winter cases of influenza, that is not the same disease as the “bird flu” in Asia. Dr. Hansen says although that strain has now spread to the country of Turkey, she does not expect the federal government to raise the alarm here — until the germ develops the ability to spread from person to person, instead of bird to person. So far that hasn’t happened anywhere.