Officials prepare for bird flu

By Sarah J. Augustinas

The fear of a worldwide epidemic of the bird flu has risen in recent months, as confirmed cases spring up around the globe.

Beginning in Southeast Asia during 2003, the disease infected most of Asia’s poultry population, accounting for the demise of over 150 million birds.

Now considered by the World Health Organization to be “endemic” – native to a particular region or people – in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Thailand, the bird flu was confirmed in Russia this July, followed by Turkey and Romania in October.

The concern of the health community is that the virus may mutate into an easily-transferable form, crossing the species gap and infecting humans. This fear has begun to materialize with 100 confirmed human cases, of which more than half have resulted in death. According to the WHO, “most cases have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults.”

Emergency plans formed

Because such an outbreak has never occurred among humans, which would allow immunities to form, the potential impact is vast.

“If this starts to spread in human populations, I don’t think any place is necessarily going to be considered safe,” said William Oleckno, professor of Allied Health Professions.

Emergency plans have been made to prevent an outbreak in DeKalb, according to both Chief Don Grady of the DeKalb police department and Eddie Williams, executive vice president of finance and facilities.

“In the case of an outbreak, we would be working side-by-side with the County Health Department,” Williams said.

Grady said the Police department would offer its assistance.

“If the health department needed to do mass inoculations we would use the Convocation Center,” he said.

He admitted, regardless of detailed planning, “it would be very difficult to quarantine the flu virus.”

Freshman undecided major Katrina Basch said while NIU could handle the situation, she still is worried about the spread of the disease.

“There’s something about birds and the flu that frightens me,” Basch said.

Shots not guaranteed solution

“Flu vaccines are based off of the flu that was prevalent last winter,” Oleckno said. “If it does move into human populations it probably will be the result of a genetic change.”

Such a change would render the vaccination ineffective, and the best options cannot be used until an outbreak occurs, Grady said.

“The world is ill-prepared to defend itself against a pandemic,” stated a WHO bird flu fact sheet.