Public health planners have a new tool to help them prepare for one of the most daunting public health emergencies: an influenza pandemic. PandemicPractices.org, launched Monday by the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota and the Pew Center on the States (PCS), a division of The Pew Charitable Trusts, brings together more than 130 peer-reviewed promising practices from four countries, 22 states and 33 counties. Compiled as a resource to save communities and states time and resources, the database enables public health professionals to learn from each other and to build on their own pandemic plans.

"The federal government has a national plan in place for a flu epidemic. But that plan will be useless unless states and local communities are ready and able to handle a public health emergency on the ground," said Jim O'Hara, managing director of Health and Human Services Policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Communities across the country are facing the challenge of translating broad requirements into local action, often with limited resources. This database is an excellent tool to help public health officials inform their own pandemic planning and may save valuable time and resources that would be spent crafting strategies from scratch."

Every winter, seasonal flu kills approximately 36,000 Americans and hospitalizes more than 200,000. Occasionally, a new flu virus emerges for which people have little or no immunity. Such a virus will spread worldwide, causing illnesses and deaths far beyond the impact of seasonal flu, in an event known as a pandemic. A severe flu pandemic will last longer, sicken more people, and cause more death and disruption than any other health crisis. In addition to the human toll, a flu pandemic will take a serious financial toll. One report predicts a range -- from a global cost of approximately $330 billion in a mild pandemic scenario, to $4.4 trillion worldwide under a 1918- like scenario.

Planning for a flu pandemic represents a challenge in public health. No one can predict the severity of the next pandemic, and there is a shortage of data from past pandemics to help guide planning. Despite the hard work of professionals across the public health community, America is unprepared for even a moderate pandemic.

"It is crucial that states, counties and cities continually enhance their preparedness for pandemic influenza," said Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, CIDRAP director. "This online database represents an important step by providing concrete, peer-reviewed materials to further public health preparedness."

PandemicPractices.org highlights approaches that communities across America have developed to address three key areas: altering standards of clinical care, communicating effectively about pandemic flu and delaying and diminishing the impact of a pandemic. Users can easily find practices applicable to their communities. The database can be searched by state or topic, as well as by area of special interest, such as materials translated into multiple languages, materials for vulnerable populations, or toolkits for schools.

"Communities across America are looking for information and resources to help them plan for a flu pandemic. This database will be a vital contribution to those efforts," said Isaac Weisfuse, MD, MPH, deputy commissioner, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who served as an Advisory Committee member and reviewer on this project.

Planners can examine and download pandemic flu planning materials and use or adapt them to fit local needs. The database allows cities, counties, states, hospitals, clinics and community organizations to find materials that may enhance their pandemic preparedness. Even agencies whose work is included can benefit from the work of others. For example, communities that have developed strong risk communications practices can learn from their peers who have focused on expanding the health care workforce to meet the needs of an influx of patients.