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Pandemic is subject of conference

September 21, 2006|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.

Chicken was on the menu and avian flu on the agenda as state legislators and experts from Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia met to compare notes on what steps are being taken to deal with the next influenza pandemic.

"The threat of another influenza pandemic is very real," said Dr. Jean Taylor, head of the Pandemic Influenza Program for the Maryland Department of Health. She told legislators at the 19th annual Quad State Conference at Wilson College that the last pandemic, a "mild" one that claimed 37,000 American lives, was in 1968 and that they occur every 10 to 40 years.

"We're due," Taylor said.

The strain of avian flu that public health and safety experts around the world are keeping their eyes on is H5N1, which they fear could mutate and become easily transmittable between humans. Among water fowl, migratory birds and poultry, the virus has been detected in 53 countries, said Dr. Eva Wallner-Pendleton, an avian diagnostic veterinarian with Penn State University.

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So far, human infection has been limited, Wallner-Pendleton told the legislators. In 10 countries comprising a population of 1.5 billion, there have been 247 confirmed human cases since 1996, with 144 deaths, she said.

"The most alarming feature is that more than half the people have died" and most were healthy young adults, Taylor said. Most have been infected from contact with birds, but there are indications of human-to-human transmission, she said.

The avian flu virus has been found recently in ducks in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and in a swan in Michigan, Wallner-Pendleton said, but are "low pathogenic local strains" that pose little threat to humans.

"Pennsylvania is the No. 1 state in surveillance testing," having performed approximately 290,000 tests, said Dr. David Griswold, assistant state veterinarian for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The department does flock testing, monthly inspections of live bird markets and auctions, and tests of dead of dying birds, he said.

The state also has developed response plans for quarantining farms and "depopulating" flocks if the avian flu virus is detected.

Christian R. Herr of the Penn Ag Industries Association said his group has developed notification and response programs for the state's agricultural industry to limit spread of the disease in case it is detected.

The effects of a pandemic could spread far beyond the poultry industry and food chain, and into every aspect of people's lives, said James W. Spears, West Virginia's secretary of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

"There are few communities and few industries that have fully developed continuity of operations plans," Spears said.

A pandemic could result in absenteeism rates of 40 percent in businesses, governments, schools and essential services, including those who are ill, have taken time off to care for loved ones or simply do not leave home for fear of contracting the disease.

Unlike a hurricane, which affects a region and can wreck its physical infrastructure, Taylor said a pandemic affects all regions and "human infrastructure." A virus can take weeks to run its course in a community and often return a second or third time, she said.

Until a virus mutates to a form that is easily transmitted between humans, a vaccine cannot be developed and that usually takes months, Taylor said. The goal of a national strategic stockpile of medicine to treat an influenza outbreak is 25 percent, but current stockpiles would only treat about 3 percent of those who could get the disease, she said.

"Our theme is planning, exercise. Revise the plan, exercise," said Earl Stoner of the Washington County (Md.) Health Department. Emergency plans have to be flexible and involve the entire community, he said.

Depending on the virulence of a strain, Stoner said Washington County could anticipate anywhere from 500 to 5,000 people being hospitalized and 100 to 900 dying.

Taylor said one of the best methods for limiting the spread of viruses among humans is also among the simplest - hand washing.

West Virginia Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, asked if people might have to consider "curbing ourselves of the custom of handshaking."

"I'll leave that up to you," Taylor said.

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