Bird Flu in Texas? Not Yet, but UTMB Drills Just in Case

It's still considered an emerging infectious disease, but officials at UTMB-Galveston's emergency department hope a recent drill will help them be ready for the possibility of a bird flu pandemic in the future. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams explains.

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There have been 230 confirmed cases of bird flu around the world and 132 deaths, nowhere near a pandemic but a virus that could easily mutate and turn into something that could affect a large number of people. Victims of bird flu so far have been people with direct and intense contact with infected birds. Dr. Glen Mayhall is an epidemiologist at UTMB-Galveston and says it has not been easily spread, either from bird to human or from human to human.

"It's very poorly transmitted between people and as long as it stays that way without any changes that would make it more transmissible between people, we're going to have just what we've seen so far, a relatively small number of cases and no pandemic."

But as part of an emergency plan, UTMB officials this week simulated a scenario in which patients with bird flu arrived at the hospital seeking treatment. Even though a pandemic is unlikely, Mayhall says the hospital is doing what it can to be ready for any emerging infectious disease, not just bird flu.

"We didn't have SARS here but we could have and they'll be other things in the future other than influenza and SARS that will come our way as emerging infectious diseases. So we're planning for whatever may come to Galveston in the way of an emerging infectious disease that we would fear because of its pathogenicity or its ease of transmission."

Hospital employees wore protective clothing during the exercise and put volunteers acting as infected patients in a special negative pressure zone that keeps tainted air inside a series of rooms. Pamela Falk is the director of healthcare epidemiology at UTMB.

"We relayed a lot of our stories back to when Toronto had SARS a few years ago and we take a lot of our scenarios from them, because that was real life and we can say, hey guys, a few years ago Toronto hospitals went through the SARS, the same kind of thing. We need to be prepared because several people, health care workers in Toronto died from SARS because they were exposed to patients. That's pretty scary and people listen when you tell them this really happened. It was a different disease but it could happen here."

So far, there have been only a handful of confirmed bird flu cases in North America.

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