Bird flu no reason for panic

Bird flu, a strain of the virus from Southeast Asia, is a potential pandemic that could pose a threat to public health everywhere, including Kaua’i.

But the key word is “potential,” local health officials said.

“I would tell people to be concerned and aware, but not to panic,” said Dr. Sarah Park, spokesperson for the state Department of Health.

“Bird flu is very specific. If it ever picks up the mutation to be a regular flu (one that is spread among humans and is airborne), then we could have a problem,” she said.

“You could have a deadly virus that humans have never seen before.”

Park said there was reason for concern because Hawai’i is a gateway for people coming to and from Southeast Asia, as well as the rest of the world.

An especially virulent strain of the bird flu is spreading out from Southeast Asia. Known as H5N1, the virus can infect humans as well as birds.

World leaders and health officials are taking the threat of a pandemic seriously, and pressure is on to develop effective containment measures and treatments, according to National Public Radio’s Web site.

The virus has recently shown up in birds in Russia, Turkey and Romania, according to USA Today.

The bird flu has infected 117 people, killing 60, a death rate of more than 50 percent, according to published news reports.

Human cases which had been confined to Southeast Asia have now spread to Europe and Turkey. Most people have been infected through close contact with infected poultry.

Park was quick to point out that these people live in much closer proximity to poultry farms than people in industrialized nations.

She said it was highly unlikely that Kaua’i’s omnipresent chicken population was in danger.

“Chickens don’t migrate from Asia to Kaua’i,” she said.

Park said there was always a possibility of a pandemic flu. Deadly pandemics have included the “Spanish flu” of 1918-19, the “Asian flu” of 1957-58 and the “Hong Kong flu” of 1967-68.

“It is not a matter of our proximity to Asia. It can happen anywhere in the world,” Park said.

“No matter where you go, you should be aware of a pandemic flu. Unfortunately, we can’t predict when it will happen.”

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials and the general populace are unprepared for a flu pandemic.

Park said state officials are as ready as they can be to deal with a flu pandemic.

The first line of vigilance would be the state’s airports.

“Nobody is 100 percent ready to deal with that,” she said, adding that state health officials are vigilant in their surveillance of any hint of a pandemic flu threat, and would be quick in their response.

The virus can be detected in a molecular test.

One problem is that Hawai’i health professionals, and the nation as a whole, likely do not have enough Tamiflu, an anti-viral medication that is being stockpiled by both consumers and leaders of governments. The medication may be effective against the avian flu.

“The question is ‘Do we have enough around the world, and do we have enough here?’ The other question is ‘What is enough?'” Park mused.

As of Oct. 7, prescriptions for Tamiflu were up 713 percent from the same time a year ago, according to market researcher Verispan.

Hawai’i’s high transient population, and the fa ct that so many people come and go after staying relatively short periods of time, concerns health officials, as does the high ratio of visitors to residents.

Those concerns cause public-health officials to worry about the number of potential types of viral strains that could impact the islands.

Park said it is impossible to predict what kind of a flu season Hawai’i might experience. She said there were a couple of cases over the summer. The peak flu season in Hawai’i is generally from February till April.

She urged anyone returning from Indonesia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, to report any unusual symptoms to their physicians, should they feel ill.

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