Meeting held to help manage bird flu outbreak

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Selma Times-Journal

Pandemics aren’t new.

Last century, there were three flu pandemics that combined to kill more than 50 million people worldwide and nearly 1 million in the United States.

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During the last couple of years, a new type of avian influenza or “bird flu” has raised concern among scientists, and health organizations, including here in Alabama, are helping people prepare in the event of an outbreak.

On Wednesday, the Alabama Public Health Department held a management conference in Selma to help raise awareness of the possibility of a pandemic and offer ways to cope with it and other incidences that might cause mass fatalities.

“Everything is transparent to the public,” said Cindy Lesinger, pandemic influenza and smallpox coordinator for the state Health Department. “We cannot plan for everyone, and by attending the training, people are able to plan for themselves and their families.”

The conference was the second of 11 scheduled across the state in Homewood, Gadsden, Northport, Ozark, Millbrook, Linden, Florence, Huntsville, Atmore, Mobile and Talladega.

Today, the Local Emergency Planning Committee will hold its monthly flu pandemic meeting at 10 a.m. at the Dallas County Health Department Community Room. The monthly meeting of the pandemic portion of the LEPC is a requirement of the state health department, said Rhonda Abbott, deputy director of the Dallas County Emergency Management Agency.

Avian influenza is an infection caused by bird flu viruses. These viruses occur naturally among birds. Wild birds worldwide carry the viruses in their intestines, but usually do not get sick from them. However, bird flu is very contagious among birds and can make some domesticated birds, including chickens, ducks, and turkeys, very sick and kill them.

Infected birds shed the virus in their saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Susceptible birds become infected when they have contact with contaminated secretions or excretions or with surfaces that are contaminated with secretions or excretions from infected birds. Domesticated birds may become infected with avian influenza virus through direct contact with infected waterfowl or other infected poultry, or through contact with surfaces, such as dirt or cages or materials, such as water or feed, that have been contaminated with the virus.

The risk from bird flu is generally low to most people because the viruses do not usually infect humans. However, confirmed cases of human infection from several subtypes of bird flu infection have been reported since 1997. Most cases of avian influenza infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or surfaces contaminated with secretion/excretions from infected birds. The spread of bird flu from one ill person to another has been reported very rarely, and has been limited, inefficient and unsustained, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The World Health Organization’s experts and other scientists believe the world is closer to another flu pandemic than at any time since 1968, when the last of the previous century’s three pandemics occurred.

WHO lists the world in six phases, depending on the severity of the situation. Right now, the world is in phase 3: a new flu virus subtype is causing disease in humans, but is not yet spreading efficiently and sustainably among humans.

Reuters reported out of Hong Kong on Tuesday that a Chinese expert on respiratory diseases says the H5N1 bird blue virus has shown signs of mutation and has urged vigilance.

Experts worry that seasonal flu, which is what most people experience this time of year, could get mixed up with a deadly novel strain, such as H4N1 bird flu. Such a hybrid would become easily transmissible and could likely cause the next pandemic.

Three Chinese have died this year of bird flu. They were likely infected through contact with sick poultry, according to the WHO, which added there was no evidence of transmission between humans in all three cases.

Also on Tuesday, the Ministry of Health and Population of Egypt announced a new human case of bird flu in an 8-year-old boy. He was hospitalized March 3 with symptoms, is receiving treatment and is in stable condition. The government reported that an investigation into the source of the infection indicate a history of contact with sick and dead poultry.

Of the 47 cases confirmed in Egypt, 20 have been fatal.