Physicians say flu pandemic likely in Oklahoma, but not this year

Friday, November 4th 2005, 6:29 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Thousands of Oklahomans would be infected and the state's health care system could be overwhelmed by a flu pandemic that health officials said Thursday is likely within the next decade.

Although a global outbreak of bird flu or some other novel influenza strain is not expected during the upcoming flu season, Oklahomans should still protect themselves from infection by practicing good hygiene and getting a flu shot, the state's top epidemiologist said.

``It protects you against the flu season we know we're going to have,'' said Dr. Brett Cauthen of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. As many as 20 percent of Americans get sick every year from the flu and about 36,000 die from it.

The bird flu strain has already decimated poultry populations in Asia and could cause widespread damage to Oklahoma's poultry industry if it reached the nation's shores and infected domesticated chickens, turkey and ducks.

``It would have significant economic impact,'' said Dr. Kristi Bradley, deputy state epidemiologist. Thousands of birds might have to be slaughtered to halt the spread of the outbreak, Bradley said.

``It would probably cause a lot of concerns among humans,'' Bradley said. But Cauthen said eating poultry or even handling packaged poultry products will not transmit the virus to humans. The virus is spread through the saliva, nasal secretions and feces of infected birds.

``Eating chicken will not give you the bird flu,'' he said.

State and federal health officials are preparing for a new flu pandemic that could involve the Asian bird flu, which has killed at least 62 people in Southeast Asia since 2003. The virus is spread from bird to bird and most human victims regularly handled live poultry.

``The virus is not spread easily from person to person,'' Cauthen said. But health officials are concerned the virus could shift to a strain that people have never experienced before that spreads easily among the population, something that has happened three times in the last century.

A total of 500,000 people died in the United States during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. The last pandemic involving the Hong Kong flu occurred in 1968 and killed 34,000 Americans.

``A flu pandemic is not imminent,'' Cauthen said. ``It may be next year. It may be five years from now. It may be 10 years.''

Although there is no vaccine that would be effective against a pandemic virus, advances in medicine should prevent a repeat of the death toll experienced during the Spanish flu outbreak, he said.

``Health care has come a long way since 1918,'' Cauthen said. ``There's no reason that we're going to have a pandemic just like 1918.''

Cauthen said estimates indicate between 89,000 and 207,000 people might die in a medium-level pandemic in the U.S. and as many as 100 million could become sick.

Symptoms of bird flu range from typical flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches, to eye infections, pneumonia and life-threatening respiratory diseases.