- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

District health officials and administrators tried to tweak their emergency-preparedness plan for pandemic flu yesterday during a conference at Gallaudet University.

“Our purpose today is not to scare, it’s to prepare,” said Edward D. Reiskin, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “What we’re hoping to get out of this today is an updated plan.”

The D.C. Health Department has put together a plan that joins industry, educational and health organizations to minimize the effect of a major outbreak, such as a mutated form of bird flu that could pass easily between humans.

Parts of the plan would allow D.C. health officials to quarantine infected people, ration antiviral medications and use public buildings as health care facilities.

Pandemic preparedness is only one portion of an “all hazards” approach the District has taken to be ready for disasters, which also covers terrorism and hurricanes.

The difference with disease is that it can last longer and be more elusive, Mr. Reiskin said.

“That’s a bit different than a bomb that blows up Metro Center, which is contained in time and space,” he said.

The federal government’s plans also play a bigger role in determining how the District responds, Mr. Reiskin said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that if bird flu mutates to pass easily between people, it could kill two million Americans, sicken about 90 million, force offices and schools to close and overwhelm health facilities.

A Congressional Budget Office report in December said a severe pandemic would reduce U.S. economic growth by 5 percent in the year of an outbreak.

So far, the disease remains confined mostly to wild birds and about 200 people in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, many of them poultry workers.

Although millions of birds have been culled, the reported worldwide human death toll was 113 by April 21, according to the World Health Organization.

The current strain of bird flu, the H5N1 virus, was first reported in late 2003 in Hong Kong.

Several health officials said they might be able to stop the virus before it becomes deadly to large numbers of people.

“If a bird dropped from the sky today, it is not an indication we would have a pandemic tomorrow,” said Andrea M. Morgan, associate deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 2004, the agency stopped a disease among wild birds in the Mid-Atlantic by identifying which flocks were most likely to carry it and killing them.

“It’s important that we educate the public that we can respond in this fashion,” Dr. Morgan said.

The Bush administration has put together a $7.1 billion bird flu plan to stockpile medications and distribute 20 million doses to the states.

Nine percent of Americans have made preparations for a flu pandemic, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll of 1,001 adults released April 20. Fifty-three percent said they expect to die if they get sick from bird flu.

A copy of the District’s pandemic influenza preparedness plan is at the Web site www.dchealth.dc.gov.

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