U.S. plans to fight possible bird flu pandemic

U.S. health officials plan to ward off the possibility of a bird flu pandemic in their country by rushing to tackle an outbreak the moment it appears.

"If you can get there fast enough and apply good public health techniques of isolating and quarantining and medicating and vaccinating the people in that area, you can ... squelch it or you can delay it," Health and Human Services Secretary Leavitt told.

Leavitt is traveling to Asia to shore up international cooperation should bird flu mutate to easily infect people.

To further that goal, more than 65 countries and international organizations were to participate in discussions Thursday at the State Department about preparations for the possibility of worsening bird flu.

Next week Leavitt plans to meet with leaders of the Southeast Asia countries that are the epicenter of the virus.

There have been three flu pandemics in the past century; the worst, in 1918, killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.

Scientists say it is only a matter of time before the next worldwide influenza outbreak. Concern is rising that it could be triggered by the avian flu called H5N1.

That virus has killed or led to the slaughter of millions of birds, mostly in Asia, but also in Russia and Italy. It has killed about 60 people, mostly poultry workers, because so far the virus does not spread easily from person to person.

The fear is that it will mutate to spread easily, a catastrophe because H5N1 is so different from annual flu strains that people have no natural immunity.

Role-playing different outbreak possibilities over the past few months led federal health officials to broaden their focus on how to detect a bird-flu mutation in another country and quickly send overseas help.

Typically, state and local authorities deal with quarantine decisions - isolating the sick and closing large gatherings where diseases might spread.

The updated plan will outline when federal health officials will take over for the locals, something that will depend on how the flu is spreading, the AP reports.

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