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Bird flu threat is raising public awareness of issues

November 06, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The widely reported threat of a possible avian flu pandemic has had one key benefit, according to health officials.

"To me, the only good thing about all this worldwide concern about avian flu is it gets people thinking about the regular flu," said Robert Brooks, vice president for medical affairs at Washington County Hospital. "As a public health issue, our message to the public is use good common sense."

The flu vaccine is not expected to provide any defense against the H5N1 strain of bird flu, but health officials said it appears publicity about avian flu, which originated in Asia, has prompted many Americans, including residents of Washington County, to get flu shots.

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Washington County Health Officer William G. Christoffel said a large-scale flu clinic is scheduled for Nov. 15 at several locations in the county, including sites in Hagerstown, Boonsboro, Hancock, Smithsburg and Williamsport.

Health officials are hoping to vaccinate as many as 8,000 at-risk residents, including older residents and the chronically ill.

Interested residents may schedule an appointment by calling 240-313-3456 on Tuesday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Much of the concern about avian flu revolves around the fact that humans have not had much exposure to the virus and might not have as much immunity to it as they do to the more common variations of regular influenza. The fear is that someone who already has the flu will become infected with avian flu, and the viruses will mutate into a potentially fatal, more easily communicable strain.

"What they're afraid of is a human will get it who happens to have the flu," Christoffel said. "One of the key preventative measures would be public information."

In response to the SARS outbreak two years ago, officials with the health department, hospital and others began meeting to develop a response plan in the event of such a pandemic, and Christoffel said they should be prepared to respond in the event of an avian flu outbreak.

Christoffel said the group has identified sites where it will set up health clinics and the supplies and resources it will need to operate those clinics. A major variable with the plan, though, is whether a vaccine to the bird flu will be developed and in distribution in time to control a possible outbreak.

In the absence of such a vaccine, health officials will have to rely more heavily on public cooperation with risk-prevention techniques most commonly associated with flu season, such as minimizing contact with those not infected with the disease, and particularly with those in high-risk groups, such as older residents, young children and those with respiratory problems, Christoffel said.

"The main thing would be to reduce human contact with other humans," Christoffel said. "You've got to contain it. That's the only way."

The avian flu has killed at least 62 people in Asia since 2003 and led to the death of about 150 million birds, according to information from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were confirmed cases of avian flu in U.S. birds last year, including a flock in Worcester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. There are numerous poultry farms in Worcester County, including farms operated by Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods.

Rebecca Shockley, nursing director for Worcester County, said the county has distributed information to those farms, including recommendations developed by the Delmarva Avian Influenza Joint Task Force with guidelines from the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Among the task force's recommendations is that employees who work at poultry farms with confirmed cases of the bird flu take preventative measures against catching the disease, including wearing proper protection and frequent hand washing after handling poultry exposed to or infected with avian flu.

"The primary preventative method, as it is every flu season, is that people protect themselves," Shockley said. "Compared to previous years, we have had an increase" in participation in vaccination clinics.

Hospital officials also are hoping for the public's cooperation in preventing the spread of influenza this season through measures including "respiratory etiquette," which it unveiled during the SARS outbreak two years ago.

The hospital is asking those with cold or flulike symptoms not to go to the hospital or visit at-risk patients unless it is necessary. Residents with those symptoms who must visit the hospital also are asked to wear masks available in dispensers in several of the hospital's waiting rooms.

For more information about avian flu, visit the CDC's Web site at www.cdc.gov, the World Health Organization's Web site at www.who.int/en/, or www.pandemicflu.gov, a federal Web site created to provide additional information about the issue.

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