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Local Public Heath Officials Warned That 'You're On Your Own' If the Bird Flu Hits

If bird flu spreads to the United States, local towns and states cannot rely solely on the federal government to help contain the virus, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday.

"Local planning is really the frontline, I can't say it enough," said Dr. Julie Gerberding at the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Boston.

In the event of a pandemic, Gerberding warned that hospitals and medical centers would be overwhelmed and vaccines would not be readily available. Gerberding said people would have to use old-fashioned methods to protect themselves, such as wearing face masks and limiting contact with others. "The number of doses of (vaccine) is not necessarily a measure of preparedness," she said. "It's not going to be a silver bullet." In Massachusetts, state health officials estimate that a pandemic could cause 20,000 deaths and result in about 30 percent of the population, or 2 million people, becoming ill. An estimated 80,000 people would require hospital care.

Gov. Mitt Romney has asked for $36.5 million to buy about 5,000 hospital beds, 2,000 ventilators and doses of vaccines and anti-virals to be sent to overtaxed hospitals.

Paul Cote, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health who also spoke at the forum, said health officials recommend that individuals do what they can to prepare by stockpiling canned food, supplies and medication to last 30 days.

"Potentially 30 percent of the workforce is not going to be available in a pandemic and the likely case is that would disrupt the supply chain," he said.

Bird flu, the common name for the deadly H5N1 strain, began spreading about three years ago and has killed an estimated 127 people in 10 countries.

About 200 million birds have died.

Bird flu typically is passed to people through contact with contaminated animals, but health officials worry that it could merge with regular seasonal flu to produce a deadlier strain easily transmitted between people. "We know that the H5N1 virus is continuing to evolve," Gerberding said. "It's that evolution that's so worrisome." Last month, the first cases of person-to-person transmission of the virus is believed to have occurred in Indonesia, where several members of the same family became ill after spending time with a sick woman.

The woman died before health officials could determine whether or not she had bird flu, but the sick family members did have confirmed cases of H5N1. Gerberding said health officials believe it is likely that bird flu will eventually infect birds here but cautioned it could be another strain of flu that causes a pandemic among humans. "The one thing we can expect is that the flu will be unpredictable," she said.

Cara Fitzpatrick may be reached at cfitzpatrick@ledger.com .