Tulsa County health officials prepare for the bird flu

Tuesday, November 1st 2005, 10:03 am
By: News On 6

Pandemic preparations are nothing new for Tulsa County health leaders. They've been getting ready for the possibility of an avian flu outbreak for more than a year.

News on 6 anchor Tami Marler says Tulsa's Emergency Management officials are learning from the experiences of other communities in crisis, how to respond to a disaster that has the potential to take thousands of lives.

It was almost as though Hurricane Katrina's after-effects were a total surprise, like no one knew New Orleans' levee system was so fragile and the city that was built below sea level, like they hadn't prepared for decades for the possibility of flooding. Even worse, hundreds of police officers were either unable or failed to show up for work.

A federal investigation recently named "the failure of communications" the "single most important" contributor to the breakdowns in Katrina's aftermath. "I think you could imagine what would happen if we had a Hurricane Katrina in all of the 50 states of the United States, such as could happen with a bird flu outbreak. It would be a catastrophic event, and one that would really take all of our resources to deal with." Tulsa County Health Department director Gary Cox says emergency management officials have been preparing for a possible outbreak for more than a year.

The virus has not shown up in Oklahoma's poultry population, but H5N1 is making its march westward from Asia, to London, now possibly into Canada. Tulsa health officials are staying on top of the possibilities, without causing alarm. "Now whether it's the bird flu that's circulating in parts of the world now. That's really unpredictable and nobody knows. That could happen or it may not happen. We will likely get some variety of a widespread outbreak in the United States."

Cox says they're taking lessons learned from Katrina and other experiences to train the media and those who will communicate the message to others. "Certainly one of the lessons learned I think from Hurricane Katrina is the communication systems and the backup communications systems are very important, because if you lose the ability to communicate with each other and to the general public, it's very difficult to do your job."

Health experts say unnecessarily using anti-virals like Tamiflu, could create a resistance to the drug, which would make it useless in an outbreak. They say our greatest hope is a vaccine, which will take about six months to develop once researchers can identify the virus.