Health departments on alert for bird flu |

Health departments on alert for bird flu

Amanda Fehd

Hospitals and county health departments in Tahoe are keeping a close eye on the possibility of a global flu outbreak, reviewing disaster plans and preparing procedures in case the avian virus spreads between humans.

There’s no evidence people can infect each other with bird flu, said Vicky Fogelman, an epidemiologist and division manger for public health preparedness at El Dorado County Health Department.

The flu has not reached the United States.

But if the virus mutates so it can spread among humans, the possibility of a pandemic increases, she said. Good hygiene, like washing hands and covering coughs and sneezes, is recommended to prevent spreading any flu.

“If we detect avian flu in our area, we’d recommend additional precautions, like not going out, or wearing masks in public,” Fogelman said, adding people should not be scared right now since bird flu has not been found in the United States.

Still, she considers it a significant threat.

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“Pandemics do occur cyclically, we are about due for one in the next few years,” Fogelman said.

There is no vaccine available because bird flu must be first be isolated as a human disease.

“A vaccine cannot be developed until a strain of the virus is transferred between humans and identified,” said Judy Davis, public information officer for the Washoe County District Health Department. It could take up to six months for scientists to develop a vaccine after it spreads to humans.

A pandemic could last up to 18 months, officials said.

El Dorado County is assigning an avian flu task force, consisting of all agencies that would be involved in the case of an outbreak. The health department will also give briefings to any group that requests one on bird flu.

Other counties are on the same page.

“We practice disaster scenarios several times a year,” said Pam Stock, director of patient care services for Incline Village Community Hospital. “If a pandemic were to occur, we have a system of triage (multiple patient care) that would we would follow and patients would be brought in or transferred to Reno or Sacramento.”

More information on avian flu is available on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control, at

The most severe influenza pandemic in the past century occurred in 1918 during which 500,000 Americans and up to 40 million people worldwide were infected and killed. The last time a flu pandemic struck America was in 1968, a relatively mild outbreak that killed 34,000 people.

– Tribune News Service writer Justin Broglio contributed to this report.