It is in the news almost daily. There has even been a TV movie about it and Oprah has devoted an hour to what she called 'Deadly Bird Flu: The Untold Story'. Now we look at how Lubbock fits into the pandemic picture and why there are some here who are very concerned and at least one expert we found who is not.
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Learn More About the Bird Flu
We call it the Avian Flu because right now, it circulates among birds. If it migrates to the US and mutates to something that can pass from person to person, then the virus known as H5N1 becomes a pandemic. But, why would that be different from any other flu?
"The pandemic flu is a strain of influenza that has made major genetic shift that virtually no one has any kind of antibodies to it," said Tommy Camden of the Lubbock Health Department. That means symptoms are more immediate, more prolonged, and more pronounced.
The recent ABC movie "Fatal Contact" pictured the worst case scenario with hospitals overwhelmed and very little medication to treat the masses. And in real life there is a concern that even if the right treatment is developed, one company may claim it.
"There may be only one company that holds those patent rights and may not be able to produce enough anti-viral medication for 300 million people in the U.S.," said Camden. That's why the Bush Administration is asking health departments nationwide to plan for this potential pandemic and involve major employers like the Texas Tech Health Science Center.
"There's not a lot of hard data to what the impact of what the flu impact could be so we look to history," said Don McBeath of the TTUHSC. A similar flu in 1918 killed between 20 - 40 million worldwide and more than 10,000 a week in some US cities. Even in Lubbock, at the Carlisle Cemetery, that flu is immortalized on a marker at the entrance gate.
"Many of the people buried there were buried from 1918 to 1920 and died from the big flu of 1918. The county literally shut down for two weeks. Businesses closed, schools closed, churches closed by order of the mayor because of the outbreak in Lubbock alone," said McBeath. There was another flu pandemic in the 1960's although it was milder and now, it is again 40 years later, and health officials agree a pandemic is overdue.
On the Oprah Winfrey show it was said that "If that virus mutates into a contagious human flu, no one on the planet will be safe." If is a big word and that's where we find some contention. In the family medicine clinic at Texas Tech, Dr. Ron Warner is an epidemiologist who is specialized in preventive medicine. He says, "I just don't see the evidence that this particular H5N1 is able to be transmitted to humans as easily as some thought at first it might."
Dr. Warner also says health officials have been watching this virus for almost ten years in conditions that are ripe for trouble with lots of opportunity to mutate but it hasn't. "Those populations are dense populations of people. More dense than west Texas where we have less than ten people for each square mile," said Warner.
Camden agrees that we have advantages in the US. People aren't packed in living quarters with pigs and chickens. We have more safeguards here and overall, better hygiene. "But I think by this time next year, we will have avian flu in the U.S." said Camden.
"Specifically our agriculture industry and the USDA will respond vigorously and will probably extinguish it as they have other strains of Avian Influenza in the recent past," said Dr. Warner. It is reassuring to know that already Tyson, the nation's largest poultry producer is protecting its flock indoors and testing it five times more often than it did a year ago because nobody knows when or even if the virus will be a threat to Americans.
"If we get a major pandemic situation, it's going to impact everyone. Every business. Every person. Every family," said Camden. "Everyone, I think, believes there will be a pandemic someday, but is H5N1 the one? I'm beginning to think not," said Dr. Warner.
So we'll let you decide if a pandemic is on the way. At this point, it's really anybody's guess, but just as we prepare for bad weather, health officials are at least hoping we will plan for but not panic over the possibility of a pandemic.
Lubbock Leaders Prepare for Pandemic Flu
For the first time, Lubbock health and business leaders joined forces Thursday, to plan for a possible flu pandemic. NewsChannel 11's Ben Lawson attended the meeting and has this report.