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While allaying flu fears, officer ponders pandemic

With bird flu as yet undetected in the United States, feeding birds isn't dangerous, according to Dr. Kim Thorburn, Spokane Regional Health District health officer. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
With bird flu as yet undetected in the United States, feeding birds isn't dangerous, according to Dr. Kim Thorburn, Spokane Regional Health District health officer. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Bird flu is a serious issue that deserves the attention of public health officials, but people in the Inland Northwest don’t need to give up their scrambled eggs or fried chicken.

That’s the message Dr. Kim Thorburn, Spokane Regional Health District’s health officer, gave participants in an online chat about bird flu on Thursday.

Bird, or avian, influenza has captured widespread attention in recent weeks. The H5N1 strain of the virus has caused 62 human deaths in Asia. One hundred seventy-four wild ducks in British Columbia were determined to have the H5 strain this week, and test results expected next week will tell whether any of those animals had the more dangerous H5N1 strain.

President Bush on Tuesday asked Congress to set aside $7.1 billion to prepare for a possible bird flu outbreak.

The news is prompting anywhere from two to more than a dozen citizens to call local health districts with questions each day.

Thorburn answered questions Thursday submitted by readers, including one who wondered if bird flu was simply “the 2005 version of the Y2K scare.”

While Thorburn assured readers that bird flu has not been detected in the United States and has only rarely spread from birds to humans, she warned that the world is overdue for a flu pandemic. Flu pandemics occur when the structure of the virus changes so greatly that humans aren’t immune or resistant to the new strain.

“These changes sometimes happen when an animal strain of influenza, such as bird flu, crosses into humans and then gains the ability to spread from human to human,” she wrote.

While there is an epidemic of bird flu in Asian and European birds, and some humans have been infected, “The last step has NOT occurred: the ability for the bird flu to spread from human to human,” she wrote.

Because that’s a possibility, steps should be taken to prepare for a pandemic, she wrote. The health district is doing pandemic flu planning, and school officials are involved in that process.

If there were an infectious disease emergency, she has the authority to close schools and other public events, she wrote.

In an emergency, “There will be a lot of public messaging instructing people to stay home while sick so that only the sickest, who need high level care, will be accessing health care resources … We are also identifying shelters for people who might be ill but unable to remain in their homes because of pre-existing disabilities, frailties or other social needs,” she wrote.

What if you board an airplane and learn that a fellow passenger has a highly contagious form of the flu?

It’s likely that passengers would be quarantined during the incubation period – a few days to a week, she wrote. They would be watched closely and at the first sign of symptoms, an ill person would be isolated from the others. Anyone who made it through the incubation period without symptoms would be released.

“Identifying sites for quarantine where essential services are available is part of public health emergency planning,” Thorburn wrote.

Although the seasonal flu vaccine, which is widely available, won’t protect people from bird flu, Thorburn encouraged readers to get it. Common-sense practices, such as covering your mouth when you sneeze, washing your hands and staying away from others when sick, can also help keep a flu pandemic at bay, she wrote.

In case of a health emergency or natural disaster, she also advised keeping three days’ worth of food and water and an extra week’s supply of medicine at home.

Susan Cuff, spokeswoman for the Panhandle Health District in North Idaho, said Thursday that agency also is planning for a flu pandemic.

“We’re working on a plan for distribution of medication or a vaccine,” she said.

On a smaller scale, Panhandle’s preparedness plan was used last week when about 1,500 students and school staff were tested for tuberculosis at Coeur d’Alene High School, she said. A hospitalized student tested positive for the disease earlier last month.

Despite media and officials’ attention on bird flu, Spokane resident Bobby Wayne seemed more concerned about the birds’ safety than the health of humans Thursday.

The former rockabilly music artist and his girlfriend, Marge Meyer, feed the ducks at Manito Park almost every day. They’ve noticed the animals’ hunger increase as the temperature drops. They’ve witnessed a goose named Frank obeying another park regular like a dog minds its master.

A friend told Wayne recently about the ducks in Canada with the H5 virus. But that’s not going to stop Wayne from bringing eight loaves of bread to Manito each day.

And Thorburn assured readers Thursday that feeding waterfowl in local parks won’t expose people to bird flu.