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Avian flu threat is real

so is the need for action

April 11, 2006

If Washington County had a couple of years' notice that a terrorist attack was coming, could local officials craft a plan to prevent many deaths and major injuries?

We'd like to think so, but the county government's 2005 attempt at emergency planning wasn't exactly wrapped in glory.

That has to change now, because local officials in charge of maintaining the public's health say that in 10 years or less, the nation will face a pandemic of avian influenza.

The condition, commonly known as bird flu, is dangerous because it is caused by a virus. Over time, viruses can change or mutate into other forms that are resistant to the vaccines that are available now.

That means that vaccines can't be stockpiled, since doctors have no way of knowing which strain they'll be trying to combat.

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If a pandemic strikes, health officials say they might have to vaccinate the entire county in just 72 hours.

According to William Christoffel, the Washington County Health Department's Health Officer, his department was previously able to vaccinate 6,000 people in eight hours.

Where this will take place hasn't been announced yet, but Christoffel said that his department has been preparing for an outbreak for the past five years.

During last November's flu clinic, Christoffel said that officials looked at what was needed for a county-wide effort.

Health officials say that after being vaccinated or treated with an antiviral drug, people will have to avoid contact with others, so that the bird flu can dissipate.

Tom Skinner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The Herald-Mail that citizens should prepare to be isolated in their homes for some time. And, he said, they should have a stockpile of food and any prescription medicines they take.

Christoffel said that soon more information will be released on how people can protect themselves from the flu - and how to treat family members who become infected, in the event that hospital space is limited.

For some citizens, the tendency will be to treat this as something that might never happen, and that if something does, well, they'll worry about that then.

Yes, it does seem as if there is some new alert issued regarding human health every month. For the record, the World Health Organization issued its bird flu alert in 2004 and more than 100 have died worldwide in the past three years.

As local officials have noted, a Spanish flu epidemic killed 1 million in this country in 1918. That need not take place again, if citizens realize that government officials aren't the only ones who have to prepare now to prevent the worst from happening later.

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