Ohio takes steps to prepare for bird flu

Michelle Poje

With new cases of the avian or bird flu appearing in Europe and Asia, progress is being made in Ohio and across the nation to prepare for a possible pandemic in the United States.

Of the $350 million requested by President Bush, Congress has currently distributed $100 million nationwide for pandemic planning efforts. Ohio alone will receive $3.2 million in federal funding.

Pandemic planning includes preparing medical personnel for treating and quarantining patients in the event of an outbreak, as well as providing medical equipment and assistance.

On Feb. 17, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Gov. Bob Taft stressed the importance of avian flu preparation to a crowd of 500 health, business and government officials at the Convention Center in Columbus.

“We must be vigilant in our preparation so that if pandemic flu does hit, we can detect it quickly and respond aggressively,” Taft said at the summit.

Leavitt added “there are roles that the national government can and will play,” but noted that all communities need to understand that the federal government will not be able to help everyone in the event of a pandemic.

John Ferlito, commissioner of the Kent Health Department, said local health officials are already preparing for a potential outbreak in the event that government aid cannot immediately come to the region.

“They (medical personnel) have gone through several exercises that address the issues of mass vaccinations and moving people from one location to another, or quarantining people in their homes for a short amount of time,” Ferlito said.

Ferlito said the Health Department is also talking to hospitals and making plans about what will be needed to care for patients if an outbreak occurs. He said he hopes the federal aid money will help area hospitals obtain additional necessary equipment, like respirators.

“Everyone, local businesses, the agricultural community and private citizens, needs to better prepare in their own communities,” said Ohio Department of Health Director J. Nick Baird at the summit. “Ohioans must get informed, be prepared and work together.”

The Ohio Department of Health released an updated, 59-page blueprint that provides further detailed instructions for health departments and residents about what to do if the avian flu strikes U.S. soil. The document can be viewed in its entirety at http://www.odh.state.oh.us/

In the last century, there have been three worldwide influenza pandemics occurring in 1918, 1957 and 1968. The 1918 pandemic had the highest number of deaths with 500,000 in the U.S. and 14 million worldwide.

Ferlito said the bird flu pandemic could prove to be just as deadly.

“In 1918, the flu was most threatening to the elderly and the young people in the age group of 18 to 26,” Ferlito said. “If this flu mutates into a human-to-human virus, I think a lot more people will be affected evenly.”

The avian flu virus is currently being spread through imported poultry and exotic birds or human contact with infected fecal matter. The first reported human case of the bird flu occurred in 1997.

A pandemic occurs when a flu virus that humans have little or no resistance to spreads worldwide from person to person.

Contact public affairs reporter Michelle Poje at [email protected].