Officials prepare for bird flu

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— The avian flu has not reached North America, and it can't be transferred from person to person, but a bird flu expert visiting Steamboat Springs said it's still a good idea to be prepared.

Kristy Pabilonia, a biologist and veterinarian with Colorado State University, gave about 30 people at Centennial Hall the latest information about how scientists are monitoring and tracking avian flu.

"We have tons of response plans," Pabilonia said. "That's all we're doing is writing plans."

Planning for the worst and dreaming up scenarios that would quarantine the region and cut off supply routes for food and other supplies can make a person a little uneasy. But those are the types of things that health officials are thinking about.

"There's a chance it could come tomorrow, two years from now, or it could never come," Pabilonia said. "I'm not telling people to kill their chickens."

Avian flu started in China in 1996 on a goose farm and spread to Hong Kong in 1997, where the virus claimed its first human lives. The virus is creeping into Europe, and it is estimated that 200 million birds have been destroyed, Pabilonia said. It has killed more than half of the 175 humans who have contracted the virus, but it is not a pandemic, she said.

"Human deaths from avian influenza pale in comparison to tuberculosis or rabies," she said. "The difference is the potential is very, very great for this disease."

The virus continues to spread, and some scientists think it is just a matter of time before it reaches the United States.

"It's getting close to here so I think the media frenzy is picking up," Pabilonia said.

The disease could reach this country by birds naturally migrating. Or it could be brought to the U.S. by a bird that was not quarantined and was smuggled into the country.

A bird infected with avian flu was smuggled into California for cock fights, Pabilonia said.

The Exotic Newcastle Disease in 2002-03 forced the state to kill 3.16 million birds, and it was estimated to cost the government $200 million to eradicate the disease, she said.

"We enjoy really low food costs in the United States, and this could affect our food costs," Pabilonia said.

Local health officials said they continue to work on plans to prepare for a pandemic or other emergency, including plans to immunize thousands of people.

"We've practiced these plans, we've revised these plans, and we continue practicing these plans," said Steve Hilley, bioterrorism and hazards coordinator with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association. "But to try to create a scenario for every little idiosyncrasy is impossible."

Cari Hermacinski, who has a small flock of birds outside of the city, said she found the discussion calming.

"I think the most appropriate government responsibility is to let people know that they may need to take care of themselves for a while," she said. "We need to think about how to care for ourselves."

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