Health official: Don't panic, but prepare for bird flu

LAWRENCEVILLE - Fact and fiction collided in a made-for-television movie on a potential pandemic flu last week, health officials said.

Gwinnett Health Department spokesman Vernon Goins said he was glad the ABC movie brought bird flu to the forefront, but he said people have to realize the events were dramatized.

Health agencies across the world are concerned that an especially virulent strain of bird flu already prevalent in Asia and Africa could combine with human flu virus and create a super virus and an international pandemic.

Goins estimates a pandemic could kill as many as 600 people in Gwinnett County alone and send as many as 126,000 people either to the hospital or the doctor.

But he said the depiction in "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" of the virus becoming stronger and eventually killing every person who comes in contact with it is absolute fiction.

Over time, he said, viruses become weaker and not stronger.

Historically, pandemics occur about three times a century, Goins said, noting the globe is "overdue" for a major episode.

While a pandemic does not currently exist, Goins said people would be asked to wear masks, goggles and gloves if the virus does begin to spread.

Officials would monitor absenteeism in schools and government offices, and businesses are asked to create a "tactical plan," to remain in operation if half the work force gets sick.

Goins said even families should have a plan, and schools and churches will be called upon to designate facilities as acute care centers.

While the movie showed people quarantined, Goins said health agencies no longer employ quarantine plans. Instead, they will ask people to maintain "social distance" and be especially careful of etiquette such as covering one's mouth when one sneezes.

At this point, with the possibility still looming across the globe, Goins and other health professionals are working to educate the public on the virus, protection measures and plans.

"The movie was a work of fiction. It still gets the idea out there and puts public health in people's minds," Goins said.

He said he put a message on the health department hot line to point out to callers that the pandemic does not exist.

After the West Nile virus was detected in Georgia, Goins said he saw some people panic. But now is not the time to panic - it is the time to prepare.

"We're asking people to prepare for something that may never happen," he said. "But we know the potential is cataclysmic."

For more information, go to www.pandemicflu.gov.