The federal government on Friday urged Americans to stockpile food and medicine in an effort to prepare for what officials warn could be widespread disruptions in the event of an influenza pandemic.

A flu pandemic is a global outbreak that occurs when a new influenza A virus causes serious human illness and spreads easily from person to person, according to the CDC.

Experts inside and outside the government have warned of a medical crisis if, for example, a highly pathogenic virus like the H5N1 bird flu virus begins to infect large numbers of humans. But they have also warned that a flu pandemic would likely interrupt nearly every aspect of normal life, as schools, workplaces, grocery stores, and even utilities shut down.

What is a Pandemic?

Gaining 'Peace of Mind'

Personal stockpiles of food, water, and basic medicine would do little to stop the spread of a pandemic virus, experts acknowledge. But it could help lessen the social impact if services and institutions are debilitated, officials say.

“Our goal here is to help people prepare, not to panic,” says Christina Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which urged the actions Friday. “Through preparation people can gain peace of mind knowing they’ve done what they can do.”

The recommendations in many ways echoed calls in 2003 by Tom Ridge, then the Secretary of Homeland Security, for families to prepare for a potential terrorist attack. The campaign faced some ridicule when Ridge called on Americans to purchase duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal their homes against biological or chemical weapons.

The HHS on Friday issued a checklist that calls on individuals to plan for transportation disruptions as well as work and school closings. It also calls on households to store supplies of nonperishable food, water, and medicines for use in the event of an outbreak.

When Come Bird Flu Come to the U.S.?

Opposing View

Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a federal government advisor, criticized the new guide.

He tells WebMD that stockpiling supplies of food and water could help individuals isolate themselves from sick people, but that supplies of “a month or months” would be needed to ensure adequate distancing.

The plan also calls on people to “talk to their doctor” about obtaining supplies of prescription medications that could be in shortage during a pandemic, a scenario that Osterholm says is “effectively impossible.”

Most drug manufacturers keep low inventories of drugs and instead sell them about as quickly as they make them, he says. Also, most private insurance plans don’t allow patients to obtain more than a 30-day drug supply for current use.

“You can’t go out and buy a 60-day supply and if you did that the inventory would dry up overnight,” says Osterholm, who has been encouraging the government and businesses to come up with emergency supply plans for the U.S. economy.

Bird Flu May Be More Contagious Than Thought

Improving Preparedness

Pearson says the latest call was in direct response to requests for guidance from thousands of individuals and that the guide was part of an overall government effort to boost private and government preparedness.

“It would be incomplete to do one part and not the other,” she says.

The guide comes as drug manufacturers continue federally funded early production of a still-experimental H5N1 vaccine. Officials say they plan on eventually producing up to 300 million doses of the vaccine but that such large supplies would take years to produce.

Meantime, the World Health Organization confirmed the deaths of three siblings from bird flu in Turkey. The news made that country the sixth to record human bird flu deaths and the first one outside Southeast Asia.

The disease has caused 145 known infections with about a 50 percent fatality rate. Scientists say H5N1 has not shown an ability for efficient human-to-human spread, a condition necessary to make the virus a direct pandemic risk.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Department of Health and Human Services: "Pandemic Influenza Planning: A Guide for Individuals and Families," Jan. 6, 2006. Christina Pearson, spokeswoman, Department of Health and Human Services. Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. World Health Organization: "Avian influenza update," Jan. 5, 2006.