County has head start on preparing for bird flu

LAWRENCEVILLE - In the span of a few months, thoughts of an avian flu pandemic have swirled in the minds of millions.

Nations are developing a pandemic response strategy, as are the federal government and the state. But Gwinnett County has been preparing for the event for many years.

"We've been worried (about avian flu) since 1997," said Marcia Postal-Ranney, RN and infection control coordinator at Gwinnett Medical Center Hospital Systems. "We've been concerned about when the next flu pandemic would come and have been talking about preparedness for a long time."

The H5N1 virus, a subtype of the avian influenza virus, is found in poultry. Scientists first believed it impossible for birds to directly infect humans with the virus, but outbreaks in Hong Kong in 1997 that killed six of 18 people infected have proven the contrary.

No vaccine for the disease is available, but according to the Centers for Disease Control vaccine development efforts have been taking place since April 2005.

"This is where the rubber hits the road," said Vernon Goins, spokesman for the East Metro Health District.

Once a pandemic plan has been prepared on the national and state level the next move is to plan for the pandemic on a local level, he said. For a disease to be deemed a true pandemic it must never have been seen in the human population, be easily transmissible between humans and show a significant death rate. As of now there is no pandemic, but being prepared for one is key.

"We've had a couple practices with this kind of thing," said Goins. "Last year we did the drive-thru flu clinic and that might be the way we'll decide to handle something as contagious as a pandemic flu."

Gwinnett Medical Center Hospital Systems have had an avian flu plan in place since 2003 following an influx in avian flu cases in Vietnam and Thailand. Anyone who comes through the hospital doors now with flu-like symptoms and has traveled to Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia or Cambodia is immediately ushered into a sealed-off section of the hospital for airborne contact prevention. They are then tested for strain A and B Influenza, strain A being H5N1 (avian flu).

"If they have Influenza A we would contact the Health Department, which is part of the East Metro Health District, and we would arrange to have specifics sent to the state lab for testing," Postal-Ranney said.

The Health Department would then contact family members and anyone else known to be in contact with the individual and certain precautions would be made while keeping the individual in isolation.

Last February a man from Vietnam was tested at Gwinnett Medical Center and was initially thought to have Influenza A (avian flu), said Postal-Ranney. However, later tests showed he did not have Influenza A. The situation resulted in a dry run for the hospital staff, giving them a chance to enact the procedures necessary should an outbreak truly occur in Gwinnett.