State prepares for bird flu pandemic

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(Host) Administration officials say the state is starting to get ready in the event that Vermont is hit by a bird flu pandemic.

Officials say that in the worst case, 40% of the state’s population could be sick, quarantined, or absent from work.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) First – the good news. The virulent strain of bird flu that kills more than half the people who get it has not reached North America.

Second, the virus that has claimed more than 100 victims – mainly in Asia – is not easily passed from people to people. It mainly infects birds, and would have to mutate into another form before it’s very contagious between humans.

So for now, there is no pandemic like the kind that ripped across the globe in 1918 and killed 20 to 80 million people, with half a million dead in this country.

But before you get too complacent, here’s how Doctor Cort Lohff, the state epidemiologist, outlined the worst case.

(Lohff) “We project that around 4,000 Vermonters may die as a result of the next pandemic, again if that pandemic plays out like the 1918 pandemic.”

(Dillon) Add to that 4,000 dead, the impact on the state’s health care system, with 18,000 Vermonters hospitalized.

Officials say that under the worst case scenario 40% of the state would get sick, quarantined, or stay at home to help others.

The impact on delivering essential services, such as fuel or food, could be staggering.

Mark Metayer is deputy commissioner of public safety.

(Metayer) “The same thing that makes a state worker sick is going to make the truck driver that works for the local fuel company sick. And how do we plan for that? We look to what we have for resources, and as the need arises, we look to muster those resources.”

(Dillon) The state is preparing on a number of fronts. The Health Department is working with hospitals and health care workers. And the Agriculture Agency wants to require mandatory identification of all places where animals are kept.

That will allow a rapid response so the state can kill infected birds and quarantine poultry operations.

That proposal is controversial. Some farmers feel it’s an intrusion into their lives.
But Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says the identification system is critical.

(Kerr) “If you want to put out the fire quickly you need to know where the house is. If you don’t know where the house is and you’re running around the neighborhood looking for the smoke and the flames then something is going to burn more than was necessary.”

(Dillon) Representative Steve Adams, the chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Committee, says he’s satisfied the state is planning ahead.

(Adams) “Emergency Management is involved, as well as the Health Department and Agency of Agriculture and Fish and Wildlife Department. I think that as a state we are getting behind the eight ball and making plans for the eventuality of avian bird flu here in Vermont.”

(Dillon) The experts say if bird flu does get to this country, it will probably hit the West Coast first. So there should be some warning before it arrives in the Northeast

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

Vermont Department of Health Influenza Information

Vermont Department of Health Bird Flu information

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