Sunday, December 18, 2005

News - A bird flu pandemic is possible

A bird flu pandemic may arrive in a neighborhood near you, and you probably aren?t paying much attention.

You should be.

Government and health leaders are walking a narrow line: trying to inform citizens of the possibility that a pandemic may be in our future, while not panicking people.

?This is a time to inspire planning and not panic,? U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said during a recent St. Paul meeting.

Government officials may be downplaying the threat so much that Americans are not taking it seriously, if the public even knows there is a threat.

The situation is that a strain of flu birds pass to each other has started infecting humans, mostly in Asia where birds and humans often live together in close quarters. Of about 140 people who have caught that flu, half have died.

The real threat will come if the flu begins to pass from human to human.

With no human immunity to the new flu strain, the bug could spread rapidly. Health experts predict millions would die ? 30,000 in Minnesota alone. In fact, there could be 1.5 million sick Minnesotans and just 16,000 hospital beds for them.

The difference between the current situation, mainly a concern in Asia, and a pandemic is whether the virus mutates so it can be transmitted from human to human.

?We know the virus is continuing to evolve,? Dr. Julie Gerberding of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the St. Paul pandemic summit.

It sounds like a science fiction plot, but Gerberding and other medical experts say the current bird flu looks a lot like the 1918 flu strain that swept the world.

Leavitt said the good news is that this may be the first pandemic in which the world has enough warning to prepare. The bad news is that the flu could mutate and spread so fast that nothing can be done to stop a pandemic.

?It will spread at Internet speed,? Gerberding said,

If that happens, life as we know it will change dramatically. You and your family may be ordered to stay home for a week (so you had better stock up on food, games for the kids and MP3 songs for the teens). Schools may close and be turned into temporary hospitals. Business may be hampered by absenteeism that could hit 40 percent.

?Most people won?t be sick, but everybody will be affected,? Leavitt said.

The key to a good bird flu outcome is for the public to understand how to deal with it.

Leavitt and Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach said their agencies are working on fliers, videos and other forms of education that can be put out immediately upon emergence of a mutated bird flu strain. That is not soon enough. Regardless of what government leaders do, people will be in a panic by then. The public needs to be informed now.

Information is available. For instance, www.pandemicflu.gov is a federal site with tons of information on the subject. Before long, it will include a checklist about what families should do to prepare. Also, www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic is the Centers for Disease Control take on the problem.

It is not time to panic, but it is time to learn about what could happen.

IN-FORUM

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