ANCHORAGE - Patricia Cochran says her mother always remembered the year 1918 like it was yesterday.
That was the year the crew of a ship bringing mail to Nome, on Alaska's western coast, also brought a lethal strain of the flu and set loose a pandemic that left her mother an orphan and wiped out entire households, even villages, in the region.
Cochran, director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, spoke Thursday at the Alaska Pandemic Influenza Summit, a gathering of federal, state, local and tribal organizations in charge of preparing for another potential influenza pandemic.
An Inupiat from Nome, Cochran said she was retelling the old stories not to make people feel sad but to drive home the importance of protecting the community.
And she said, the Alaska Native community faces a particular risk.
Alaska Natives hunt migratory ducks and geese in large numbers for subsistence. Some of those species in other parts of the globe have been found carrying a deadly strain of bird flu, called the H5N1 virus, and it has decimated poultry and wild bird flocks.
More than a hundred human deaths have resulted as well, among people living in close contact with poultry. Now scientists say Alaska is the most likely place for the virus to be found in North America, brought in by migratory birds.
"I get many calls from communities and right now the No. 1 issue, especially with hunters, is worry about bird flu," she said.
Officials caution against panic, however. They point out that the disease so far is not easily transmitted from birds to humans and there have been no cases of transmission from wild birds to humans.
They say Alaska faces no greater risk of a pandemic than anywhere else.
"We're telling people, be prepared, not scared," said Jim Butchard of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. State agencies are just beginning to work with communities to get them information and training, and help them put emergency plans together, he said.
Officials say communities will be the front line of defense if a pandemic begins.
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U.S. Department of Health and Social Services Deputy Secretary Alex Azar attended the summit as part of a national tour. He said a pandemic would most likely break out in many communities across the country at once, quickly overwhelming government services and transportation lines.
"Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that government can or will offer a lifeline will be tragically mistaken," he said.
Alaska received $660,000 this year from the federal government for emergency preparations, its share of a $350 million congressional appropriation released so far to all states. The state Department of Health and Social Services is also hoping for a $7 million appropriation from the state Legislature this year for pandemic preparations.
Leonard Bean Sr., a resident of the largely Native community of Kake and a board member for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, said his group is working on a plan for the pandemic flu but more money is needed.
He said more information is needed, as well.
"We need to look ahead and anticipate problems but right now we have more questions than answers," he said.
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