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Whidbey Island gets ready to handle bird flu

The best protection against a bird flu outbreak is keeping a level head and getting communities prepared.

Dr. Rick Ingrasci of Langley has made this one of his priorities as he helps the emergency planning group work on the city’s emergency plan.

The avian flu virus is sweeping the world. With it comes a wave of questions and fear.

“The psychological dimension of this stuff is fascinating,” Ingrasci said.

There are two key arguments for being prepared. For one, it never hurts to be ready. Secondly, everything that’s known about the psychology of fear suggests that people can tolerate more if there is something for them to do and they feel involved.

Building community resilience

Preparing for a bird flu outbreak can be a teachable moment to build community resilience, Ingrasci said.

It is a time to connect with neighbors, find out who would need special assistance in an emergency, learn and, in the process, grow closer and stronger as a community, he said.

The avian flu, which most recently hit Western Europe, will likely arrive in the U.S. sometime early this autumn when birds return south along their flyways, said Dr. Roger Case of the Island County Health Department.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s when,” Ingrasci agreed.

It is important to be ready and take the situation serious without overreacting, he said.

“It’s just another virus,” Ingrasci said.

And it will remain that unless it turns into a pandemic.

Pandemic flu vs. outbreak

Pandemic flu is flu that causes a global outbreak of serious illness that spreads easily from person to person. Currently there is no pandemic flu.

It’s important to recognize the difference between a bird flu outbreak and a pandemic, Ingrasci said.

Because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that the virus one day could be able to infect humans and spread from one person to another.

Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population and an influenza pandemic could begin. Experts from around the world are watching the situation in Asia and Europe very closely and are preparing for the possibility that the virus may begin to spread more easily from person to person.

City, county getting ready

Langley, with its efforts to prepare the community in any case of emergency, is on the right track.

On March 15, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation into law that directs each local health jurisdiction to develop a pandemic flu preparedness and response plan.

On the Island County Health Department Website, people can see the draft of the Pandemic Flu Plan for Island County, as well as a “Primer for Pandemic Flu” for Camano and Whidbey Islands.

The Pandemic Flu Plan for Island County outlines a worst-case-scenario based on an epidemiological model conducted by the U.S. Center for disease control. According to this model, up to 21,000 people could be infected by an influenza pandemic resulting in about 400 deaths in Island County.

However, that implies a pandemic which is spread from human to human, a scenario that has not been reported.

“Essentially, being prepared is best accomplished by getting informed. This is essential in doing something constructive to allay the fear that will probably become rampant should human-to-human Avian flu occur in our region,” Case said.

Community outreach

Case and the Island County Department of Emergencies are planning a series of community forums over the next few months to bring business, professional and school leaders together to discuss the ramifications that any pandemic might have on local communities.

Case said the best tool to combat any pandemic initially is information.

“Vaccines will take several months to develop, and medications may or may not work. We can all practice prevention,” he said. “Get informed, participate in community discussions.”

Avian flu is an infection caused by avian influenza viruses. Avian influenza is very contagious among birds and can make domesticated birds — including chickens, ducks and turkeys — sick and kill them.

Case said when the bird flu comes to the Pacific Northwest, it will most likely appear initially in chickens, as it has in other countries. But it may involve other domestic birds as well.

“We can only wait to see how this plays out. It doesn’t seem to affect wild birds so much at present,” he said.

Risk for humans low

Joel Mooney of Wild Birds Unlimited in Clinton he is concerned about false panic surrounding the issue. People shouldn’t stop feeding wild birds or stop enjoying birds.

“People shouldn’t be concerned,” he said. “People are aware of the development. The more educated they are, the better they understand.”

Wild birds are important in the lives of many South Whidbey people. There is no reason to be afraid of them at this point. The risk of acquiring any infection from wild birds is extremely low, he said.

While the virus does not usually infect people, human infections associated with these outbreaks have been reported.

In these cases people usually had a compromised immune system or had eaten infected birds, Ingrasci said.

Also, the bird flu virus, at least the current form of the virus, needs to penetrate deeper in the body than the common flu, Ingrasci said. That means people are somewhat more protected.

If somebody gets infected, the virus can be deadly. However, the avian flu has had a relatively small impact on humans, Case said.

“Keep in mind, to date only about 106 individuals in the world of 6.4 billion have actually died of this disease in the past three years,” Case said.

“More folks on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean have died this year of Chikungunya. Ever hear of that?” Case asked. “It’s a disease that can be totally avoided by ridding the area of mosquitoes, but it has captured absolutely no attention from the media, even though over 230,000 people have contracted the disease this year,” he said.

Island life

While the avian flu in the U.S. will likely be contained from spreading to people, an outbreak could have devastating effects on the human psyche. This is when it pays to be prepared and informed, Ingrasci said.

Whidbey Island’s geographic boundaries could turn into an advantage. If there is a pandemic on the mainland, people can stay isolated on the island. The flu may not spread off the island as easily if people remain quarantined.

In case an outbreak in birds is reported, people should use common sense.

“Just be reasonable,” Ingrasci said.

If you are a hunter, get ducks tested or don’t eat them, he said.

Case said hunters will be safe as long as they follow the usual precautions of thoroughly cooking the meat from game birds and washing their hands after handling the game.

Poultry farmers are also prepared in case of emergency. Should an outbreak occur, they are ready to kill the birds quickly to prevent further spread, Ingrasci said.

The hygiene standards in the U.S. may also help to keep the bird flu under control.

“We do enjoy better health than much of the world where avian flu has appeared in humans, and the effect here may be significantly different,” Case said. The areas of the world where human bird-flu infections have led to death were countries with substandard hygiene.

Risk for pets and wild life

Bird flu on Whidbey Island would mostly affect animals.

If Avian Flu does appear in North America, the wild birds most likely to harbor or spread it are gulls, ducks and other waterfowl, according to Wild Birds Unlimited. The backyard birds that visit backyard feeders appear to be significantly less susceptible and much less likely to become a source for spreading the virus.

However, research suggests that currently circulating strains of bird flu viruses are becoming more capable of causing disease in other animals, according to the Department of Health.

One study documented bird flu infection among pigs in China and experimental infection in housecats in the Netherlands and isolation of the viruses in tigers and leopards in Thailand. In early March, Germany reported an infection in a stone marten.

However, studies suggest that the virus does not spread easily among members of the same wild bird flock, which could prevent an outbreak from spreading, according to information Wild Birds Unlimited.

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