Ministry girds up for avian flu

Urges high-risk groups to get ordinary flu shots.

bird flu dump truck 88 (photo credit: )
bird flu dump truck 88
(photo credit: )
The Health Ministry is monitoring the avian flu situation in Asia and Turkey, especially as millions of migrating birds are passing overhead from Europe and Asia to spend the winter in Africa. But public health officials say the potential risks are mostly to poultry keepers. There has so far been no sign here of human infection with the potentially dangerous H5N1 strain of avian flu, which has killed large numbers of birds and 60 people in four Asian countries this season. "We have NIS 44 million worth of Tamiflu, the oral antiviral agent that works very well against the virus when taken early," said Prof. Manfred Green, director of the Health Ministry's Israel Center for Disease Control (CDC). "This is enough for 400,000 high-risk patients and health care workers. We would like to have enough to eventually cover one million people." The ministry has one general pandemic planning group and eight working groups. "We're not panicking, and we don't want to the public to panic. We could always use more money from the Treasury to buy more anti-viral drugs, and we expect to get more. But we're making rational decisions and doing the right thing," he said. "All influenza originates in birds, but avian flu is a kind that has a very inefficient way of spreading from birds to poultry and then possibly to agricultural workers who deal directly with live poultry," Green told The Jerusalem Post. "In the event that avian flu reaches the human population, we have a master plan for pandemic influenza that includes clinics and hospitals. We have enough Tamiflu stockpiled for the first wave of people who would be diagnosed by lab tests as having been infected and then for some subsequent waves." The symptoms of avian flu in humans are the same as in ordinary flu, but there could be more serious complications in the lungs, such as pneumonia. If a patient is seriously ill, the anti-viral drug is not very effective and other means are necessary, Green added. The avian flu virus has jumped only rarely from birds to man and infrequently between humans, but since the H5N1 strain has already taken on half of the 10 changes in genetic sequences connected with human transmission, the US authorities are very nervous, even though no one knows whether all 10 stages will be completed and how much time that could take. Green noted that all four Israeli public health funds have an adequate supply of ordinary flu vaccine for their high-risk members those over the age of 65 and those with chronic diseases. Health care workers are being vaccinated by their employers. Health fund members are now receiving postcards inviting them in for the shot, which is free to high-risk groups and available at nominal cost to the others. Although vaccinating everybody over 50, as well as children aged six to 23 months, their caregivers, parents and siblings, would significantly reduce complications in high-risk individuals who pack internal medicine departments each winter, Green said that the first priority is to vaccinate older people and those with low immunity. "No country in the world recommends universal vaccination," he continued. AP reported from Istanbul that Turkish authorities began slaughtering poultry at farms near a western village as a precaution yesterday, a day after the agriculture minister confirmed the country's first bird flu case at a turkey farm in the region, news reports said. The outbreak was confirmed by Turkish Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker on Saturday and his ministry said it believed the disease had spread from migratory birds that land at the nearby Manyas Bird Sanctuary, on their way to Africa from the Ural mountains in Russia. Manyas is some 10 kilometers away from the turkey farm where the disease was detected. Anatolia, quoting officials, said that on Friday it was confirmed that the birds in Turkey died of the H5 type of bird flu. That would suggest the scientists have narrowed it down to an H5 type virus the family of the bird flu virus that experts are watching but have not narrowed it further to determine whether it is the H5N1 strain that health officials are particularly worried about.