Health & Science

Bracing for a pandemic

Experts say a pandemic flu will strike fast when it comes.

Wherever you walk, you'll feel its effects as the world shuts down and hibernates. Play date with the 3-year-old neighbor? Canceled. A dress fitting for the wedding? Postponed indefinitely.

There is no crystal ball, no precise algorithm, no modern precedent for predicting what a pandemic flu outbreak would be like in the 21st century.

This is an era in which viruses travel from continent to continent at the speed of a jet plane and news travels through cell phones and blog posts faster than rumors in a high school hallway.

Until it happens, it's also impossible to tell how damaging a flu pandemic would be to society. It could be no more deadly than a typical flu outbreak, though it's likely many more people would get sick.

But if the pandemic is of a particularly virulent strain, death rates could climb - and that would prompt a strong public health response.

That's the message Dr. Larry Jecha, medical officer for the Benton-Franklin Health District, has been spreading for several months.

"It affects everybody," he said.

The virulent avian flu known as H5N1 is rapidly spreading across the globe, and experts say migrating birds could bring it to the United States as early as this fall.

That flu has gone from birds to infecting humans and killed more than 100 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. But H5N1 is not yet transmittable from human to human.

However, if H5N1, or another strain like it, mutated into a form that can go from person to person, it could shudder throughout society - so preparation is needed, Jecha said.

Under state law, Jecha said he "can do anything to help prevent the spread of disease."

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