Bird flu may roost here

first_imgIf it enters the United States, the widely feared avian flu would likely hit California first – and hit it hard, if it becomes contagious among humans, killing as many as 180,000 people and infecting up to a quarter of the state’s population, health officials testified at a hearing Friday. With the state’s multiple points of entry via major airports and ports, state Department of Health Services Director Sandra Shewry said, California could be the first state impacted if the virus mutates and becomes transmissible among people. “Pandemic influenza is the biggest health challenge of our time,” Shewry said during a joint Assembly Health and Budget Committee hearing on California’s preparations for a possible outbreak. “And while we cannot prevent a pandemic, we can mitigate its impact.” The avian flu was discovered in Asian poultry in 1999 and has since infected millions of migratory and domesticated birds and more than 120 people. Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, hosted the hearing at UCLA to hear from state and local health officials, as well as university professors, about the state’s level of preparedness. After the hearing, De La Torre noted that California has had four public health officers in the two years that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in office, and he worried about a lack of continuity or strong leadership. “It isn’t at all clear that this administration, or the previous Davis administration, has taken this as seriously as they could have,” he said. “Now we not only have a bioterrorism threat, but now we have the potential for a flu pandemic as well.” Health officials agreed the state needs to step up its efforts to purchase drugs such as Tamiflu, which could help lessen the severity of the pandemic, order vaccines now under development and enhance surveillance systems designed to detect the influenza among animals and humans. They also said health personnel need more staffers and better equipment. Although President George W. Bush earlier this week outlined a $7.1 billion plan to help get the country prepared, local health officials expressed disappointment that the plan only includes $100 million for state and local preparedness. At the same time, Bush cut $130 million in bioterrorism funding for local health agencies. “Localities are going to be, as they usually are, the prime responders and to have a reduction in funding,” county Health Officer Dr. Jonathan Fielding said. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will vote whether to direct county health officials to include an assessment of how to administer, coordinate and determine the priority of who would get an avian flu vaccine, once it becomes available. Shewry said the highest priority would be given to health care workers, children under age 6, people with severely weakened immune systems and government leaders. Troy Anderson, (213) 974-8985 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Recently, the virus has appeared in Europe and is feared to be spreading among various bird species. In its current form, avian flu can be transmitted to people only through contact with infected birds. Scientists, however, believe it’s only a matter of time before it mutates into a strain that can spread between humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that a United States pandemic could infect up to 47 million people, with an economic impact of up to $167 billion. About 9 million Californians could become infected, according to Friday’s testimony. Dr. Scott P. Layne, an associate professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health, said the avian flu could be brought to North America by birds migrating to Alaska, then could spread to California in a matter of weeks. “The veneer of our health care system is very thin, and a million hospitalizations will simply overwhelm us,” he testified. “I don’t know how someone prepares for something of this scale, and there’s no reason to believe it’s not going to reach North America.” last_img read more