An influenza outbreak on a remote Southeast Alaska island could be devastating if residents aren't prepared.
On Saturday in Sitka, some 1,000 residents formed lines in a middle school to participate in an exercise that prepares for a major outbreak of a disease such as avian flu.
While participants received a seasonal influenza shot in the exercise, Alaska Department of Health and Social Science officials said they learned valuable lessons about how to dispense mass vaccinations in a short time - four hours.
"If something really did happen, we have to know how we can survive on our own for a week," Sitka public health nurse Michelle Kennedy said.
About 55 volunteers, mostly from the city's hospitals and clinics, made the event possible, Kennedy said.
"Thanks to the efforts in Sitka, we now have a much better idea of what it would take to do that statewide," said Richard Mandsager, state Public Health Division director, in a statement.
The state held a similar mass-dispensing clinic in Valdez last month and one is scheduled for Fairbanks. Other states are running clinics with regular flu shots to test their readiness for an outbreak.
State Epidemiologist Jay Butler said it would be "naive" to ignore the possibility of an outbreak, because several occurred worldwide in the last century.
The world is fearing a pandemic of a particular strain of avian flu known as H5N1. Flocks of birds have died in most East Asian countries due to the flu and since 2003 the virus was found spreading to humans in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Some Asian migratory birds stop in Alaska on their flight route, Butler said. Most cases in Asia showed that the disease was spread not by wild fowl, but by humans working on poultry farms. Alaska has about a dozen small poultry farms, Butler said.
Another possibility would be a person illegally transporting exotic birds from Asia, such as a recent case of an Asian eagle brought to Europe while harboring the deadly virus, Butler said.
Alaska hunters are cautioned not to handle dead birds that they come across, especially those in a group, the department said.
House Bill 95, passed this year by the Alaska Legislature, gives the state the authority to contain the spread of contagious diseases using isolation and quarantine measures if necessary.
Mandsager said Alaska is not ready for a pandemic of any kind. Alaska has larger challenges than other states because of its great distance and difficult weather, he said.
The department is working on a new plan that would delegate responsibility to state agencies and set up communication between federal, state, tribal and local authorities.
Mandsager said tough decisions will have to be made on how to use limited vaccinations or drugs, and whether the state should stockpile its own pharmaceuticals in addition to federal reserves.
Butler said vaccinations for bird flu are still being developed and are not ready for the commercial market. After an outbreak, scientists can take up to six months to find a cure, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates based on past pandemics that 37 percent of an affected area's population will become ill in an outbreak, 17 percent will be outpatient cases and 0.1 percent will die.
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