Hospital: Preparation key in handling bird flu pandemic

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Preparation will be the most important factor in determining howwell the United States will weather a potential pandemic of theAvian (or bird) Flu, hospital officials said Tuesday.

Kim Bridge, a King’s Daughters Medical Center training officer,and Dr. Bernard Boka, a family practitioner at the Quick CareClinic, urged participants at KDMC’s Lunch & Learn program tomonitor news reports of the spread of the virus and be prepared forits potential emergence here.

Cases are widespread in Asia, Europe and Russia, but the virushas not yet crossed to America’s shores. Many experts, however,believe it’s only a matter of time.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The Avian Flu is caused by influenza that occurs naturally inwild birds. The H5N1 variant that has emerged is deadly to domesticfowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is littlenatural human immunity to the virus and no vaccine isavailable.

The Avian Flu has proven to be about 50 to 60 percent fatal inhuman cases, Boka said.

In typical influenza cases, the elderly and very young are mostat risk because their immune systems are weaker. However, with theAvian Flu, those with strong immune systems seem to be the most atrisk, Boka said.

“The virus tends to overstimulate a healthy immune system andthis, in itself, can cause problems,” he said.

Further complicating the recovery of victims in many foreigncountries is the time lost before the infected person receivestreatment and the lack of means within many hospitals to respond tothe secondary effects efficiently and quickly, Boka said.

“A high percentage end up getting pneumonia, and that is whatleads to their death in many cases,” he said.

The biggest complication in preventing the spread of the virus,however, is that physicians cannot develop a vaccine, Boka said.The virus is presently transferred only from birds to humans, andphysicians cannot develop a vaccine until it mutates into a formthat allows human-to-human transference.

Boka estimated it would take researchers three to six months todevelop a vaccine at that point. In the meantime, the virus wouldcontinue to spread, something at which it excels.

“It’s a very hardy virus,” Boka said. “It can survive outsidethe body for weeks at a time.”

What that means, Bridge said, is that should an infected personsneeze and then open a door with that hand, everyone who came incontact with that doorknob for weeks afterward has been exposed andcan potentially become infected.

Although a vaccine cannot yet be developed, two existing drugscan reduce the severity of the symptoms, Boka said. Neither ofthose drugs, however, can presently be produced in a quantity toallow for a stockpile of medicine to handle the possibility of aglobal pandemic, or even a national epidemic.

Bridge said national leaders are developing plans to ease thepotentially crippling effects of a national epidemic, which, at itsworst, could see people in some areas forced to remain home, shutdown businesses and commerce, and paralyze public transportation,communications and even emergency services.

The best preparation for individuals and families, he said, issomething they should already be doing. An emergency kit forhurricanes has most of the items that would be needed in the eventof a viral outbreak.

The seminar is a part of the hospital’s Lunch & Learnseries, which is held four times each year on health and wellnesstopics. The Lunch & Learn program is sponsored by the KDMCFoundation.

Dixie Doremus, who attended Tuesday’s seminar, said she attendsas many of the conferences as she can.

“It was excellent,” she said. “It seemed to cover all theinformation one would want to know locally about it.”