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Health Team

Health Officials Keep Wary Eye on Bird Flu

Posted December 6, 2006

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— As the annual flu season begins, health officials are preparing for more than the typical influenza virus.

About 36,000 Americans die each year from the seasonal Flu, but officials are even more concerned that a deadly form of avian or bird flu could spark a pandemic. So, health care providers are doing what they can to prepare.

WakeMed has had training drills in setting up new mobile hospital tents. The tents could serve any basic medical need, but the possibility of a flu pandemic has the hospital training staff and stocking up on equipment to fill nine tents.

"In the case of a pandemic flu, where you have to be giving comfort measures to multiple people and there were absolutely no other hospital beds, this would be an alternative," said Barb Bisset, a registered nurse and the hospital's director of emergency services.

A typical hospital ventillator costs more than $30,000 and serves one patient at a time for an indefinite time. The mobile hospitals plan to use a new type of ventillator that could help seven people at once for a short time.

Over the past nine years, H5N1, a highly pathogenic form of bird flu, has spread through southeast Asia and even into parts of Europe. Some humans who have come in close contact with infected poultry have died.

Although there has been very little human-to-human transmission in places like Vietnam, if a greater human threat appears, infectious disease experts believe it could spur a pandemic that could overwhelm the health care system.

"We don't have any experience with using a vaccine or an antiviral in a pandemic, but we have every reason to believe that, at the very least, it will minimize it," said Dr. Jeffery Engel, an epidemiologist for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Infectious disease experts believe the most likely way the H5N1 virus could enter the U.S. is through bird smuggling, not migratory birds. A black market exists for exotic birds many people want as pets, game birds for hunting or birds smuggled in for cock-fighting.

State officials are also concerned about back-yard flocks that typically aren't tested for the virus.

Commercial flocks are regularly tested for disease, and Barrett Slenning, a professor at North Carolina State University's School of Veterinary Medicine, said that bird flu wouldn't present a food safety issue.

"In modern commercial poultry, even if we were to get the disease in poultry, those birds would never make it to the human food chain," Slenning said, noting any birds that tested positive would be destroyed.

If the virus were to survive the slaughter process and cold meat storage, "there is no evidence that properly cooked product has any infectivity at all," he said.
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