March 28, 2006 in Idaho

Boise pandemic summit stresses local action

Rebecca Boone Associated Press

BOISE – A pandemic – be it bird flu or another virus – is coming, the nation’s top health official warned Idaho leaders Monday, and states and communities need to be prepared.

“The reality is, when it comes to a pandemic, we’re overdue and underprepared,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told about 200 state, city and county leaders during a pandemic flu summit. “Anything you say before it happens seems like we’re being alarmist. At the same time, anything you do after the fact seems inadequate.”

Leavitt’s visit, part of his national tour of states to check on their work in preparing for a pandemic, came amid growing concern that the H5N1 bird flu virus could come to the United States.

The H5N1 strain has killed at least 105 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly all those fatal cases were in people who had close contact with infected poultry, but some health officials think the virus could mutate into a form that would be easily transmitted person-to-person.

If a serious pandemic similar to the 1918 Spanish flu were to strike the United States, Leavitt said, as many as 90 million people would likely get sick, with 2 million dying. Once again, Idaho and other states would be expected to handle the crisis largely without the help of the federal government.

“There is no way for the federal government to reach out to 5,000 individual communities at one time,” he said.

It’s difficult to predict just when the next pandemic will strike, Leavitt said, but birds infected with the virus are expected to reach Western states by the end of the year. Still, at this point the virus does not appear to have mutated, making it difficult for humans to catch it unless they have close contact with infected birds – unlikely with the migratory bird population.

A pandemic could potentially shut down grocery stores, utility companies, schools, many government services and lines of transportation, so communities, small businesses and even individuals need to have plans to cope, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch said.

The federal government has created checklists for state and local officials to use when planning pandemic responses, and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has just finished updating its pandemic plan, department spokesman Tom Shanahan said.

Still, Shanahan said, people should not rely entirely on the state for pandemic help.

© Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email