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State Gets Checkup on Bird Flu

Health official says local governments must do more to be self-sufficient in event of pandemic.

March 31, 2006|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

California has taken some solid steps to prepare for a possible pandemic of avian influenza, but several key roadblocks remain -- including the limited capacity of hospitals to care for sick people, health officials said at a summit for pandemic preparedness Thursday.

The event at the Westin Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles was the latest stop on Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt's nationwide circuit of meetings about avian influenza preparedness. It included federal, state and county health authorities.

Although Leavitt called Los Angeles "a good example of the preparation that has been made for a pandemic," he emphasized that leaders in all fields -- including healthcare, schools and businesses -- need to do more.

He encouraged those at the summit to assume that they would have to be self-sufficient for at least a few days. "There is no way ... a federal government or a state government can come to the rescue of thousands of communities at the same time," he said.

Questions from businesspeople, doctors and local government and school officials identified serious problems in California's preparedness efforts.

The capacity of hospitals to handle large surges of patients is "going to be our single greatest challenge in addressing the pandemic," said Dr. Mark Horton, the state's public health officer.

"Even if there were enough beds -- which there won't be -- there won't be enough people" to staff the hospitals, added Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's public health director. "We have trouble with getting enough nurses now."

Officials also acknowledged that it would be difficult to use medicines in advance of bird flu, because in the event of a pandemic in America, vaccines would probably not be widely available until six months after the flu arrived.

An antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu, could be used to inoculate people before an epidemic, but Leavitt said there isn't enough Tamiflu and such a regimen isn't known to be safe.

To help local agencies develop their plans, Leavitt said the federal government had earmarked $3 million for Los Angeles County and $6 million for the state government.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he hoped to build upon the state's experience with earthquakes: "Because California has ... past experience in dealing with natural disasters, I think we have a built-in advantage here when it comes to effective response."

Time is of the essence, experts have said, because the strain of avian influenza known as H5N1 could arrive in North America as early as this summer, carried into Alaska or northeastern Canada by migrating birds.

In the last two months, the virus has been detected in birds in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The virus, first identified in Southeast Asia in 1997, rarely infects people, but scientists fear a mutation could make it more easily transmissible, sparking a pandemic.

Since 2003, the World Health Organization has recorded only 186 human cases, but 105 died.

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