WASHINGTON – Last year’s seasonal flu vaccine shortage and the looming threat of avian flu prompted Maryland government agencies to create a Web site filled with flu facts.
“This Web site represents a Maryland-based resource to ensure that the citizens of Maryland have day or night access to get their flu-related questions answered,” Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said at the Web’s site launch Thursday.
Answers to questions about influenza can be found at http://flu.maryland.gov.
While flu season occurs annually in both humans and animals, this year’s avian flu, caused by the H5N1 virus, has proven deadly to millions of birds and a few people who closely worked with them. Scientists and health officials worry that this particular strain could mutate, allowing it to be spread from person to person in a pandemic.
The Bush administration earlier this month released national avian flu preparedness plans and a similar Web site called pandemicflu.gov.
Various Maryland agencies were involved in the state Web site’s creation including the Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.
The site provides information on the differences between seasonal flu and pandemic flu, preventive measures and links to other federal and world health organizations including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
The latest version and timeline of Maryland’s pandemic influenza preparedness plan — in the works since 1999 — is also provided on the site.
DHMH Deputy Secretary for Public Health Services Dr. Michelle A. Gourdine produced a frequently asked question section called “Ask Dr. Gourdine.”
Health officials generally approve of the Web site.
“It’s very solid and easy to navigate,” said former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson. “It gives answers to appropriate questions.”
Jeffrey Levi, senior policy adviser of the nonprofit health advocacy group Trust for America’s Health, said the site was “a good start” and that the information was “fundamentally correct.”
One site feature however, could be confusing — a traffic light icon in the upper left now shining green, indicating the pandemic’s status. Beneath this symbol is a phrase that states that there is no flu pandemic in Maryland or the United States.
“Its placement gives it prominence and it will likely confuse rather than inform,” said Ray Bullman, executive vice president of the National Council on Patient Information and Education, a Bethesda-based nonprofit. “Since there are no actions or expectations assigned/associated with the colors, the meaning/intent of each color is left to individual interpretation,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Furthermore, health officials point out that the “Find a Flu Shot” section could be more helpful by noting flu clinic locations or the immunization program phone number. It now merely lists addresses of local health departments.
“Availability of vaccine should also be posted,” said Bullman, referring to this year’s delay in distribution of regular flu vaccines in scattered areas throughout the region. “There should be at least a reference to community pharmacies as places to inquire about getting a flu shot.”
The Web site is still in its preliminary stages, said DHMH spokeswoman Karen Black.
“This is just a first step in many steps,” said Black. “We will fine-tune some of the choices that are currently on the site.”