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Bird flu threat nothing to worry about CDC chief says


The News Tribune Tacoma, WA
April 16th, 2006

Federal health officials at a meeting Friday in Tacoma downplayed the risk bird flu poses to humans, contrasting earlier warnings from the federal government.

“There is no evidence it will be the next pandemic,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said of avian flu. There is “no evidence it is evolving in a direction that is becoming more transmissible to people.”

Gerberding spoke at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center at a pandemic flu conference that drew 1,200 people from across the state, mostly health department officials and others involved in emergency planning.

Other officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and elsewhere joined her. Gov. Chris Gregoire and several upper-level state officials also spoke.

Gerberding’s comments on bird flu contrast earlier statements from the federal government that tended to emphasize worse-case scenarios.

In a November letter to the public, for instance, President Bush encouraged preparing “ourselves, our nation, and our world to fight this potentially devastating outbreak of infectious disease.”

The concern is that the H5N1 strain of bird flu virus will mutate into a form passed easily between people.

visit to encourage state planning

Audience questions Friday about buying surgical masks and stockpiling food showed the concern Bush’s comments and others have raised.

But Gerberding noted that, though the disease has killed “gazillions of birds,” it has killed about 100 people out of about 200 sickened worldwide. The victims were in intense, daily contact with sick flocks, often sharing the same living space. Two people have become infected from person-to-person contact.

She did not say what had changed the thinking of health care officials about bird flu, but said that, at this point, there is “no reason to think it ever will” pass easily between people.

Given those facts, bird flu, like SARS, swine flu and other once widely publicized health threats, might never become a significant human illness.

The visit by Gerberding and the other federal officials was part of a 50-state tour to encourage state and local planning for pandemics, terrorism and other health emergencies.

Such preparedness would be especially important, since local officials would be the first to learn of problems, and a full federal response couldn’t be expected for a few days.

It was announced at the meeting that Washington state has been granted $2 million in federal money to help with planning.

Several officials said state and local planning in Washington already is among the best in the nation.

“We have an effective state strategy,” Gregoire said, noting the need for constant fine-tuning and updating. “Today we talk about pandemic flu. In 10 years it will be something else” – the important thing is to be ready for whatever comes.

easy precautions to take

Even if bird flu never causes significant problems for people, Gerberding said, the focus on it encourages emergency planning “that will save lives whether there is a pandemic or not.”

She and other federal officials said H5N1 bird flu likely will reach the United States, because bird flu and its many strains occur naturally in migratory birds.

When that happens, “it does not signal the start of a pandemic” or a threat to the food supply, said Richard Raymond, an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cooking meat to 160 degrees will destroy the virus, he said – in addition to destroying salmonella, “which sickens more people than H5N1 ever will even if there is a pandemic.”

Gerberding cautioned that when H5N1 is detected in the United States, “there will be temptation for the press to make this into something it is not. We will need responsible journalism” to prevent irrational panic.

M. Alexander Otto: 253-597-8616

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