Pawlenty presents bird-flu plan

He announced a three-stage alert system to gauge the severity of the virus in Minnesota.

Mark Remme

Gov. Tim Pawlenty outlined Thursday what will be done

if the avian flu – a viral infection that occurs naturally among birds – becomes a direct threat to Minnesotans.

The news conference, which was at the new Minnesota departments of Health and Agriculture laboratory, set the tone for a venue that will house extensive testing of viral strands.

Pawlenty was appointed co-chairman of a national committee dedicated to interstate communication related to the avian flu.

For now, avian flu virus strand H5N1 is not easily transferred and does not spread from human to human, Pawlenty said.

To date, 122 cases in humans have been found worldwide; those cases are isolated to people who have been in direct contact with an infected bird, he said. No case has been reported in the United States.

Pawlenty announced a three-stage alert system to gauge the level of severity of the virus within Minnesota.

Stage one signifies birds in the state are infected. Stage two indicates the transfer to humans, while stage three indicates a state of emergency, he said.

Upon stage three, existing stockpiles of vaccines would be used, an isolation policy would go into effect urging infected people to stay in their homes and schools and businesses might be closed.

In that scenario, the plan is intended to facilitate the vaccination of the Twin Cities area within 48 hours.

There are 16 strands of avian-based influenza that are known, but concern is focused only on the H5N1 strand, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Bird flu has established a reputation for being distinctly related to wild birds categorized as waterfowl, a group that hosts birds like chickens, ducks and turkeys.

“Of the cases thus far, all have had a direct or intimate contact with the poultry,” said veterinary clinical sciences professor Patrick Redig.

Of that number, however, approximately half have turned up fatal, he said.

Pawlenty acknowledged the unusually high fatality ratio as a reason for emphasis on this particularly aggressive virus.

The first case of avian flu in humans occurred in Hong Kong in 1997, Redig said. From there, the virus disappeared until 2004, when it arrived in Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia.

Despite a high fatality rate, the virus does not transmit easily, and the U.S. government’s concerns revolve more around human migration than bird-to-human contact, he said.

“The virus has a seven- to 10-day incubation period and could be exposed to people along the way,” Redig said. “We don’t anticipate it coming to the U.S. by means of birds – most likely through humans.”

University professor of veterinary biosciences David Halvorson has worked with preserving the safety of fowl in America for years.

In 1998, in direct response to the first outbreak of avian flu in Hong Kong, Halvorson guided a study that eventually led to 99 percent of Minnesota-based turkey growth moving indoors.

The move proved influential nationwide because of Minnesota’s standing as the leading producer of turkeys in America.

“It was important to separate commercial poultry from wild birds,” Halvorson said. “They can be the source of different diseases.”

Despite some causes for concern, Halvorson said Americans are safe for now.

“The most important way to treat the disease is to send money to help control the disease in Asia right now,” Halvorson said.