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San Diego prepares for avian flu

The avian influenza known as H5N1 has been spreading rapidly throughout Asia and Europe. Experts predict it will come to North America sometime this year.

The virus is deadly to birds. But the question of whether it could trigger a pandemic among humans is still up in the air. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has more on what San Diego County is doing to prepare.

On a weekday evening in Escondido, a deadly bird flu is the topic of conversation.
About 60 commercial bird owners are gathered for a presentation on avian influenza. It's the first in a series of public forums conducted by the office of the San Diego County Veterinarian.

Bird owner Jerry Jennings is eager to get the latest information. He operates the Emerald Forest Bird Gardens in Fallbrook.

Jerry Jennings: "We have a couple hundred birds. They're large parrots, macaws, cockatoos, African grey parrots. We have a large number of toucans, the largest collection of toucans in the world."

Jennings says he has a lot to lose if the bird flu shows up here. His birds may die of their own accord, or he may be forced to destroy them.

Jennings: "It could put me out of business. And more than just put me out of business, it could destroy the entire exotic bird industry, so to speak, in this country. Not only private individuals, such as myself, but zoos as well."

The virus also threatens the local egg business. San Diego ranks third among California counties in egg production.

Dr. Nikos Gurfield is the San Diego County veterinarian. He says because avian influenza is spread by wild birds, it's only a matter of time before it comes to the region.

Dr. Nikos Gurfield: "Migratory birds harbor the virus, they're the reservoir for the virus. They will shed the virus in their feces or their respiratory secretions. So if a wild bird lands in the middle of a poultry flock or a backyard flock, they shed the virus in those secretions, and the other birds, the domestic birds, will become infected.

In countries where the H5N1 virus has appeared, officials have killed millions of ducks and chickens as a precaution. But that hasn't stopped the disease from spreading. It's appeared in more than two dozen new countries since the beginning of the year.

So far the virus does not appear to pose a major threat to humans.

Dr. Francesca Torriani is the director of infection control at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest. She says there are certain conditions that must be met for a virus to start a pandemic.

Dr. Francesca Torriani: "It has to be a new strain that has mutated, that efficaciously is very virulent, so it can infect humans, and it has to spread from human to human. And this aspect has not occurred."

The World Health Organization says since 2003, there have been 186 confirmed human cases of avian influenza and 105 deaths.

Still, the WHO says the risk of pandemic influenza is serious. The agency says with each new human case, the virus has an opportunity to change into something more easily transmissible.

Dr. Torriani concedes the disease could become a problem.

Dr. Torriani: "With the avian flu, we don't have a vaccine and I think that that is one of the concerns is, if indeed it spreads easily from human to human, then at that point, we're in danger. But we're nowhere close to that."

Even so, health officials say it doesn't hurt to be prepared for the worst.

San Diego County has a plan to respond to a human outbreak of pandemic flu. It includes quarantining the infected, and making sure hospitals can handle a massive influx of patients.

Dr. Nancy Bowen is the County Public Health Officer. She says it's possible up to a third of the local workforce could be out sick.

Dr. Nancy Bowen: "The damage may be as great from our economic and social disruption as from the disease itself."

Bowen says if a pandemic occurs, it's crucial that essential services stay in place. That's why the County is working with local employers to come up with a way to stay in operation.

Bowen says if a virus outbreak was detected, the County would advise people to just stay home.

Bowen: "Because people can be infected with influenza virus and not have symptoms, and yet be able to spread it."

There were three pandemics in the last century, including the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 that killed tens of millions of people. It's believed that virus originated in birds.

Some say another pandemic is inevitable.
But the H5N1 virus may not turn into one. After all, it's killed only 105 people worldwide. That's less than half the number of Americans who were killed by lightning between 1999 and 2002. Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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