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San Francisco prepares worst case scenario for avian flu pandemic

Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Pat Murphy

November 17, 2005

San Francisco is preparing for an avian flu pandemic although officials reported yesterday that the current virus is extremely difficult for humans to contract.

Need to prepare for a pandemic lies in possibility the current strain may transmute into an easily contagious human virus.

China yesterday announced its first avian flu death, a 24-year-old Anhui province woman who worked in the poultry industry. It was the 65th death worldwide with deaths so far constrained to South East Asia. A nine-year-old boy in Hunan province recovered from the illness, China reported Wednesday.

With the exception of two cases, all 127 people who contracted the virus worked in close contact with poultry, Dr. Susan Fernyak said in a City Hall press conference. Fernyak is city director of city Communicable Diseases Control and heads up San Francisco's Avian/Pandemic Influenza Task Force.

However, the two cases which may have contracted the virus from other humans both also were in close contact with poultry, she said.

Dr. Susan Fernyak oversees multi-agency preparation for worst case scenario, with Dr. S. Marshall Isaacs of the San Francisco Fire Department at left, who also serves as a clinical professor of medicine at UC-SF; and Dr. Mitch Katz, director of the San Francisco Health Department.

"All of these people were infected in very rural areas of Asia and Viet Nam and Indonesia and Cambodia where there isn't really great health care," stated Fernyak.

There is no danger in eating poultry if it is properly cooked, she added.

The city's health director explained danger of the virus becoming more contagious.

The avian flu virus has not been seen in humans prior to current outbreak leaving people without natural immunities to the illness, said Dr. Mitch Katz. Should it become more contagious a world pandemic might occur, he explained. Shown from left are San Francisco International Airport director of community affairs Michael C. McCarron, Fernyak, and Isaacs.

"To me the importance of us being here…is there is a risk this particular virus will change," Katz said.

"I don't think that people are concerned with what will happen with this particular virus if it never genetically changes, because as it stands now it's not a very communicable disease. The virus is not of any great danger.

"Unfortunately the history of viruses of this type is they over time make genetic changes.

"Those genetic changes sometimes result in them becoming much more contagious.

"Because this particular virus has not previously been in humans none of us have any level of immunity to it, so were this particular virus to make a genetic change such that it became transmissible easily to humans we could have a worldwide pandemic.

"What people need to know is that their health department is making sure that if there were a change in this virus and this virus did become more transmissible then we are prepared to isolate people, to quarantine people, and to the extent that we have Tamilu, which is the drug which we believe has some efficacy against this virus, to treat people the best we can," Katz explained.

It could be ineffective and possibly dangerous for private citizens to hoard Tamiflu, Fernyak pointed out.

"We absolutely do not recommend stockpiling at home with this drug," she insisted.

"First of all we don't even know if this drug works against the avian flu, and secondly…we're concerned that people will begin taking this drug just whenever they have a cold or feel like they have the flu and then they may develop resistance to it, and then for sure it won't work.

The mayor spoke of myths surrounding the virus.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom

"Most alarmingly, people are saying 'I was told I shouldn't be going to Chinatown. Nothing could be farther from the truth," Newsom advised.

" 'I was told I should be eating poultry.' Nothing could be farther from the truth.

"There's a lot of myth out there that's getting in the way of hard evidence and facts.

"I think…that this a very important message to tell people: not to fear the unknown, but know that we are focused on the hypothetical, and if indeed this thing does mutate…that this city is prepared to the extent that can be and that we're taking this very seriously.

"At the same time people shouldn't panic. People shouldn't worry too much. People shouldn't be going around the streets with masks on.

"They should feel very confident and very safe."

The Avian/Pandemic Task Force is comprised of the Police Department, Fire Department, Sheriff's Department, Department of Human Resources, San Francisco International Airport, Department of Public Works, the Port, Recreation and Parks Department, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Human Services Department, MUNI, Department of Parking and Traffic, Emergency Communications Department, Office of Emergency Services, and the Mayor's Office.

The Task Force is responsible for staying updated and informed on
the current situation with avian influenza and its potential to evolve into a pandemic state; ensure that each department or agency is working to develop their own response plans; and finally, to ensure that all plans are coordinated citywide.

It will be meeting every two to four weeks for the next several

For more information, visit www.sfcdcp.org, or telephone 415-554-2905.




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