The H5-N1 virus is undeniably deadly. 200 people have been infected worldwide, roughly half have died. The big concern is that it could mutate into a human-to-human virus, and turn into a pandemic for which there is no vaccine.
Experts believe bird flu is likely to hit the Alaska and the West Coast first, with migratory birds bringing it in from Asia, which puts Seattle on the front lines.
In Seattle, the "gateway to Asia," they’ve been planning for an avian flu pandemic for 18 months.
Dorothy Teeter works for Seattle’s King County Public Health. “We are taking our planning to a very concrete level,” Teeter says. “It's to the point of how many hospital beds we will need? How many do we have? How much IV fluid will we need?”
Seattle’s own predictions are frightening: 57,000 people could need hospitalization, 11,000 might die in this city alone.
Why such a dire outlook?
Because today’s H5-N1 bird flu virus has genetic similarities to the virus that killed 40 million people worldwide in 1918, including half-a-million Americans. Experts fear it could mutate into a human-to-human disease.
“Within a couple of weeks time, we’ll start to be overwhelmed. So we’re not talking months of time to get prepared,” ” says Seattle Harbor View Medical Center’s Chris Martin.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt says every community should prepare like Seattle. “Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government or for that matter the state government will come to their rescue will be sadly and tragically wrong,” Leavitt says.
But critics say many towns simply won’t be up to the job. “Where you live should not determine how well protected you are from a bird flu or any kind of pandemic,” says Jeffrey Levi of the health advocacy organization Trust for America’s Health.
Still, the government says communities should draw up quarantine plans now for schools, businesses, and public buildings including plans to use schools, convention centers and churches as overflow hospitals and stocking up on medical supplies now.
What’s the government doing?
It’s stockpiling Tamiflu to treat flu symptoms, hoping to eventually have enough for those who’d get sick and pushing vaccine makers to get ready — even though it could take a year after a pandemic before enough vaccine would be available for everyone.
The government is also urging families to prepare by stock-piling several weeks worth of food, water, and health supplies in case a pandemic hits.
“When it comes to a pandemic,” says HHS’ Leavitt, “we’re overdue, but also under-prepared.”
Under-prepared, but hoping to buy time.