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Park City: front lines for flu pandemic?

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

Park City could find itself on the front lines of an influenza outbreak in the United States.

"I think there are genuine things people should be paying attention to, because, right now, if a human is infected with the H5N1 virus, it’s a 50-percent mortality rate," Summit County Health Department spokeswoman Katie Mullaly said about the virus that causes so-called bird flu. "When you look at the percentages, you sit up and take notice."

That was the message Monday from public health officials to politicians and emergency responders in Summit County who might find themselves on the front lines of an influenza outbreak.

"As I look at Summit County and I look at Park City, there are some very unique challenges that you have here," said Kimothy Smith, acting chief medical officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "Because of the international clientele that you have and the international travelers, it could be very likely that Park City and Summit County could see some of the first cases of influenza in the case of a pandemic."

Smith spoke to about 120 people at The Yarrow during the pandemic influenza planning summit sponsored this week by the Summit County Health Department.

"You have an economy that is mostly and largely based on tourism," Smith said. "You present a very unique condition."

Health officials are bracing to respond to an outbreak of influenza should bird flu ever mutate into a form that could affect humans on a pandemic scale.

H5N1 avian influenza has killed many birds, but so far only about 100 people have died from the disease, Mullaly said, adding, "we have to pay attention to this."

Most of the victims had handled infected chickens or ducks, or items that had come in contact with droppings from infected birds, she added.

No cases of bird flu have been reported in the United States, but migrating birds have spread the disease throughout Asia, Africa and Europe, Mullaly said, adding that no vaccine for the virus exists.

The U.S. hasn’t experienced pandemic flu since 1968 when influenza killed 34,000 Americans. But doctors are concerned if bird flu mutates another outbreak could occur.

"Some of you will ask, skeptically, why are we spending so many resources on preparing for something that may not happen?" Smith said. "We understand that our communities will be on the front lines when a pandemic strikes."

Because Summit County has no hospital, avoiding the flu is the best defense for residents against viruses, Mullaly said during a telephone interview Tuesday.

"The capacities of the clinics and hospitals right now to handle a widespread, severe pandemic isn’t there," she said. "Prevention is going to be the key up here because there are three times as many people who are going to get sick as there are hospital beds."

The health department has encouraged groups to form in schools, churches and businesses to examine how Summit County residents should respond.

"There is the expectation that this flu virus that is carried by birds will mutate to be carried by humans," Mullaly said. "Schools have a really important role in watching for this. If the kids start coming to school sick, that’s a red flag."

Health officials watch as bird flu spreads, expecting social and economic unrest if the disease begins inflicting humans in the United States, Mullaly said.

"This is the first time that we have been able to watch a pandemic unfold," she added.

Influenza currently kills about 35,000 people per year in the U.S., Mullaly said, adding that influenza in 1918 killed 675,000 Americans.

"What happens if the grocery stores are closed for a couple weeks, or you can’t leave your house for a week?" Mullaly said. "It makes us better prepared for other emergencies."

Preparing for an outbreak of influenza is good practice for responding to other biological disasters, Smith explained.

"The best way to prepare for an attack on our nation is to refine the institutions that we use every day," he said. "Preparedness is a shared responsibility across federal, state and local governments, as well as the private sector."

But Summit County Health Department Director Steve Jenkins cautions citizens against relying on the federal government for help.

"We know what the impact would be on Summit County we know how bad it might get," Jenkins said. "Planning and preparing will be our responsibility as a community."

Contact Mullaly at 615-3951 or visit http://www.summitcountyhealth.org for more information about preventing influenza.

To prevent illness the department suggests:

Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Throw the tissue away and wash your hands.

Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use antiseptic hand gels that contain alcohol when washing is not possible.

Stay at least three feet from people who are coughing or sneezing.

Stay home when you are sick.

Keep children home from school when they are sick.

Request a mask when visiting the doctor while sick.

Keep a supply of non-perishable food and other essential items on hand to minimize trips to stores during a pandemic.


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