Each year new strains of the influenza virus emerge and circulate throughout the globe. Sometimes they will cause local or regional outbreaks and a few times over the last century, there have been pandemics involving the entire globe. Each year a new flu vaccine is developed to combat emerging strains; however, some strains are so genetically different that humans are especially susceptible to catching and spreading the virus and the symptoms may be more severe.
Avian flu is an influenza virus that spreads among birds and has more recently spread from birds to humans. There is growing concern about the spread of the H5N1 strain of avian flu virus through Asia and into Europe because this particular strain is spread by migratory birds, transmitted to domestic birds and to mammals and can cause severe illness. Almost all reported human cases thus far are believed to have been caused by direct exposure to infected poultry. So far, the spread of the avian flu virus from person to person has been rare.
As the avian flu continues to spread and evolve, we at Lifespan are putting together plans so that if the avian flu reaches Rhode Island, we hope to have the supplies, communication and preparations necessary to treat our patients.
The State of Rhode Island Department of Health is also creating a plan to assist our hospitals and citizens.
On a national level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture are planning a coordinated, comprehensive bird surveillance and detection program for 2006. This program is designed to provide early warning to the agriculture, public health and wildlife communities should migratory birds in the U.S. be found to carry the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control is also taking part in a number of prevention and preparedness activities on state, national and global levels including study of the virus, assistance with pandemic planning efforts, surveillance of the virus and vaccine testing. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recently published a plan for US pandemic flu preparedness.
For more information on the avian flu and preparations, please visit the Centers for Disease Control website.