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Ohio Prepares For Possible Spread of Bird Flu

The National Centers for Disease Control, The Ohio Department of Health and other state and local government agencies are preparing for a flu pandemic. Even though the H-5-N-1 Bird Flu virus has not shown up anywhere in the United States, thus far, and person-to-person transmission is rare, public health and state agriculture officials are taking precautions.

The Slate Run Historical Farm straddles the Franklin-Pickaway county line. Its part of the Metroparks system. Mike Huels helps operate the farm with what he calls heirloom breeds of Poland-China hogs, Slate turkeys, and Buckeye Chickens, a dual-purpose chicken originally bred in the 1890's for both eggs and meat. Huels says the farm is susceptible to a potential outbreak of a deadly strain of Avian influenza. "I actually figure we have pretty serious exposure because we do have migratory birds coming here to the farm. Also, we get 40 some thousand visitors a year who could be bringing the disease in." Says Huels.

At the Ohio Department of Agriculture, spokeswoman Lee Ann Mizer says its most likely the H-5-N-1 virus will arrive in Ohio on the wings of a migratory bird and animals kept outside would be a pathway for avian flu to make its way to Ohio. "I don't think avian influenza has a target. Its going to come when its going to come and its hard for us to predict where it will happen. But I think migratory waterfowl is a main source of transmission." Says Mizer.

Monitors for bird flu are already in place. This year, the Ohio Department of Agriculture expects to test more than 18,000 blood samples from commercial poultry farms. The state's seven live bird markets, where poultry is bought and sold, and auction sites are sampled frequently for any signs of the virus. Mizer says if the virus is detected in a flock of birds, a quarantine would be enforced and animals within a six-mile radius would be tested and destroyed. Back at Slate Run, Huels says if the virus shows up anywhere in Ohio, he would quickly isolate his heirloom poultry. "When the avian flu comes we'll probably have to confine the chickens so that visitors don't have access, wild waterfowl don't have access to spread the disease. So we'll have to determine how many breeding animals we'll keep and dispatch and probable eat the others before the disease comes." Says Huels.

The spread of the disease and its possible transmission to humans is the biggest concerns of publc health officials. The H-5-N-1 virues first surfaced in China in 1996. Nearly 200 human cases have been confirmed, but none in the United States. In a scenario outlined on its web site, The Ohio Department of Health says if a pandemic hits the state, Ohio can expect between 26,000 and 67,000 hospitalizations and between 6,000 and 16,000 deaths. Spokesman Kristopher Weiss says the health care system would be thinly stretched. "We're working on that. Another thing we need to be looking at is that estimates say that as many as 40 percent of the workforce could be out because of illness or caring for sick family members.So that one of the things we are asking people to do is to start stockpiling some items that can allow them to stay in their homes for up to week if necessary to limit the spread of the disease." Says Weiss.

Weiss adds there were three pandemics during the 20th century and he says experts believe it is only a matter of time before the first pandemic of the 21st century emerges. But, he adds the unpredictable influenza virus is capable of changing so public statements about the severity of the threat are muted even as emergency response plans are put in place.