While a vaccine for the avian flu hasn’t been developed, and the H5N1 virus that causes it hasn’t mutated to the point of being transmitted from animals to humans, Philadelphia isn’t taking any chances.
Philadelphia, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control, has established several locations to administer and stockpile vaccinations for what has become known as the bird flu.
The avian influenza, or bird flu, first surfaced in 2003 when it began claiming human lives in Asia. To date, more than 140 million birds have been killed by the flu virus or by pretentive measures taken by world governments to halt its spread. At least 80 people, mostly in Southeast Asia, have died after coming in direct contact with the blood or raw meat of infected ducks and chickens.
Lately, cases of the virus among birds are spreading, with new instances reported in Iraq, Turkey, Greece and Italy. The virus has also been found in tigers and other animals. So far, no known cases have occurred in the United States.
In 1918, the infamous Spanish Influenza, believed to have originated in birds, killed nearly 13,000 people in Philadelphia alone, and nearly 40 million worldwide.
Today, experts warn that if the H5N1 virus becomes capable of being more easily transmitted, like through air or through water, a global pandemic could result and claim as many as 150 million lives.
According to the World Health Organization, the world is now closer to a flu pandemic than it was since the Hong Kong influenza in 1968, which killed at least 33,000 people.
However, unless the virus mutates and becomes capable of spreading from animals to people more easily, and then of spreading from person-to-person, experts say there is little to worry about.
Even so, the federal government, and state and local governments are playing it safe by tracking current outbreaks of the virus and developing plans for an outbreak in humans.
In October 2005, Philadelphia carried out a successful mass vaccination drill in which 1,000 people were vaccinated in one hour, according to Dr. Brenda Seals, assistant professor of public health at Temple.
“That was just for the exercise,” Seals said. “We estimate we could do much more than that in a real crisis.”
The city is confident that it could keep the situation under control.
Still, there is no vaccine for avian flu.
“The city isn’t in the business of creating vaccines,” Seals said, although she is confident that in every other domain, the city is ready for an outbreak. “We are theoretically within about two years to having something we could put on the market. They’ve genetically mapped out the strain that they have to create an effective vaccine for. That’s the hardest part.”
In addition to vaccinating its population in massive numbers, the city has also prepared exit strategies, which was a problem of central importance when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. Thousands were killed in massive flooding that deluged the city and opened thousands of other people to possible diseases after levees designed to prevent such floods were destroyed by the hurricane.
“The things that really handicapped the poor in Katrina were transportation and language barriers,” Seals added. “Those are the things that we’ve been addressing with the city.”
Should a worst-case scenario unfold, the city is confident it would be well-equipped to treat victims and evacuate the city if need be.
Unlike New Orleans, Philadelphia has several routes out of the city, including several highways and public transit routes that extend as far as Trenton, N.J.
“I think we’ve actually done a really good job,” Seals said. “We’re way ahead of many of the other cities in the United States in terms of thinking about these issues and addressing these issues.”
The United States isn’t the only country wary of a possible pandemic. A global fund-raising conference, involving more than 90 nations, rallied $1.9 billion in January to go toward improving public awareness, vaccinating poultry and compensating farmer who have suffered immense monetary hardships.
Experts say the avian flu virus may be more than a decade away from mutating to the point where it poses an imminent threat to the human population, if it even happens at all. Other experts say a virus mutation could be closer to a godsend than a reason to panic.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean the virus will mutate and become deadly,” Dr. Robert Bettiker, an infectiologist, told NBC10. “It could mutate and become less deadly.”
It may be that the next global pandemic is something else entirely. For now, governments and international health organizations are keeping an eye on H5N1.
“I actually think that we shouldn’t be afraid,” Seals said, adding that good sanitation and closely monitoring our animal population are adequate safeguards for now.
Since the virus has been transmitted to members of the cat family, she stressed the importance of keeping a close eye on animals.
“If we have a fear now,” Seals said, “that’s where it is.”
John Paul Titlow can be reached at email@example.com.