Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mayor details plan to fight an outbreak of bird flu

Mayor details plan to fight an outbreak of bird flu
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
By HEIDI J. SHRAGER
Responding to the deadly spread of bird flu that now spans 10 countries and three continents, Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday described what the city would do should the virus mutate into a human strain and hit American shores, creating a "potentially cataclysmic event."

Speaking at the Health Department, Bloomberg said, "The fact that New York is a major gateway to the nation, and one of the world's most densely populated cities, means the possibility of pandemic flu -- however remote -- is one we must take extremely seriously."

Experts have said that one of the biggest challenges facing the city is hospital beds, particularly on Staten Island, a borough with far fewer acute-care beds per capita than anywhere else in the city.

"Right now our hospitals are reasonably full -- we'd have to do something in addition," Bloomberg said about the citywide plan to fight a potential bird flu outbreak.

The bed crunch would be partly alleviated by the fact that first responders such as the Visiting Nurse Association would treat many people in their homes, the mayor said.

In the event of a pandemic, hospitals would coordinate their response so that resources were managed regionally and supplies shifted to meet demand, said Susan Waltman, senior vice president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, a trade group that counts Staten Island University Hospital and St. Vincent's Hospital among its members.

EMERGENCY PROGRAM

"Staten Islanders shouldn't feel like they're isolated," said Ms. Waltman, who heads the emergency preparedness program. For instance, Islanders might be transported to treatment centers off-Island, or certain Island facilities might be given extra capacity to handle more patients, she said.

Since contagious patients should not be placed in close quarters together, makeshift facilities like high school gyms would not be practical -- as they would be in a natural disaster emergency, Bloomberg noted.

Though light on details, the broadly defined city flu plan was organized in stages -- from early detection with high-tech tracking devices; to effective treatment of victims and halting the virus's spread; to uninterrupted health services for the general population. It also includes measures for updating the public as the emergency unfolds.

As for a vaccine, the mayor acknowledged that one would not be available until six to nine months after the pandemic were detected.

"Vaccine is a challenge," said Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, in part because none can be produced until the exact strain is known.

The vaccine for the current strain of bird flu is of a "limited effectiveness and limited quantity," said Frieden. The city would have to depend on the federal government, which would coordinate production should the virus arrive in the United States. "We would then obtain as much of it as we could," said Frieden.

The limited supply would be distributed "based on federal guidelines, to health workers and first responders on the front lines, as well as to those most at risk of dying," said Bloomberg.

Scientists fear Americans are due for another flu outbreak, and the H5N1 virus has loomed as a chief candidate. Having first emerged in 1997, the lethal strain so far has spread to Africa, Asia and Europe. It has left millions of dead birds in its wake, along with more than 200 stricken people who contracted it from infected birds.

Bloomberg stressed there is no imminent threat of bird or any other flu pandemic, but added the deadly consequences must not be underestimated.

Heidi J. Shrager covers City Hall for the Advance. She may be reached at shrager@siadvance.com.



© 2006 Staten Island Advance
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