Bird Flu Alarm

2006-03-22-Carolinas warned to prepare for bird flu

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-03-22-Carolinas warned to prepare for bird flu

If a bird flu pandemic strikes humans, the Carolinas must be prepared to take care of the sick and make sure life goes on without depending on the federal government, the U.S. secretary of health and human services warned Tuesday.

"Any community that fails to prepare, with the expectation that the federal government will come riding in and rescue them, will be sadly mistaken," Secretary Michael Leavitt told the N.C. Pandemic Flu Summit.

Leavitt announced North Carolina will get $2.5 million of $350 million approved by Congress for pandemic flu preparedness.

But N.C. Gov. Mike Easley, who introduced Leavitt, said, "That will not cut it."

To be prepared, Easley said, states need more federal money to purchase antiviral drugs and to pay for training local and state emergency response teams.

"North Carolina will be as prepared and as ready as humanly possible," Easley said. "But it's going to take a bigger federal commitment."

South Carolina, which held its pandemic flu summit earlier, received $1.5 million from the federal government in January.

To make their points, Leavitt and Easley both talked about the differences between a flu pandemic and hurricanes that often strike the Carolinas.

Unlike hurricanes, pandemic flu wouldn't hit one location and be over quickly, they said. It would affect the whole country and unfold over many months, lasting a year or more. Schools and businesses might close because so many people would be sick or taking care of the sick. Help wouldn't come from other states -- the way it did for victims of Hurricane Katrina -- because they would "be at home taking care of each other," Leavitt said.

Since it was first identified in 1997, the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian virus has been confined mainly to birds in China and Southeast Asia. In the last few months, it has spread to birds in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It has killed millions of birds and about 80 people worldwide. Most infected humans contracted the virus through close contact with infected birds.

The rapid spread of the virus in birds has been accompanied by fears it will mutate into a form easily transmissible among humans. That would cause a worldwide pandemic.

Leavitt said the bird flu will probably show up in a bird in the U.S. "relatively soon." Some scientists believe migratory birds crossing from Asia into Alaska and down the West Coast could bring the virus to birds here.

Leavitt said that won't be a reason for panic. "If you're a bird, it's a pandemic. But if you're a human, it's not."

If detected early, he said, infected birds will be destroyed before the virus can spread.

State and federal officials praised North Carolina's history of responding to disasters such as hurricanes and ice storms. "I've seen North Carolina in action," Leavitt said. "You do disasters extraordinarily well."

Easley singled out the state's Hospital Emergency Surveillance System that scans admission lists in hospitals across the state every 15 minutes to identify unusual clusters of disease early, and "to catch problems while they are still small."

Dr. Jeff Runge, chief medical officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a former Carolinas Medical Center emergency physician, said North Carolina's public health and emergency response programs are far ahead of those in some states. "A tremendous amount of coordination is already in place."

But it's not just governmental agencies that need to be prepared, officials said. Businesses, such as banks and groceries, must have plans for staying open when 30 percent to 40 percent of their employees are out sick. And families must prepare too. "It's not just the job of government to protect you in your household," Runge said.

To that end, federal officials have created checklists to help schools, families, businesses and health care providers prepare for a potential pandemic.

Understanding Avian Influenza