Bird flu could hit Florida first

International contacts make the state a prime entry point if a pandemic begins, a state summit warns. The advice? Get ready now.

Published February 17, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush expects Florida to be among the first bird flu cases if a pandemic spreads to the United States.

In a visit to Florida, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt warned Thursday that bird flu could reach the nation within 30 days - once it starts passing widely from person to person.

Bush predicts Florida would get the first wave.

"We have lots of international air travel. We have cruise ships. We have interaction with the rest of the world the likes of which is quite unique," Bush said. "This is a really high priority for us, maybe more than other states."

Those grim observations kicked off a state summit on a pandemic outbreak. Leading national experts confessed that we can't know exactly what will happen - or when. But the world is overdue for a contagious heath disaster, whether it's bird flu or some other new strain. An outbreak as serious as the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic would sicken 90-million and kill 2-million nationally.

The only thing to do: Get ready.

After eight hurricanes in two years, Bush noted that Floridians have a head start in creating a "culture of preparedness."

He wants every family to make a household plan and stockpile groceries for disaster, whether a hurricane or a terrorist attack or bird flu.

But Leavitt cautioned that hurricanes aren't perfect training for pandemics. For all its devastation, Hurricane Katrina, for example, pummelled only a few states over a short period of time.

"A pandemic, on the other hand, would be happening in Seattle and Santa Fe and Sarasota," he said, noting that it would roll out in six- to eight-week waves over a year or more. "We will not have the resources to respond to communities from East to West and North to South."

So what would happen if a hurricane hits Florida during a bird flu outbreak?

"Boy, don't even ask it," Bush said.

Emergency shelters are the obvious danger, Bush noted. Healthy people would want to stay away from those contagious with bird flu - a difficulty during forced evacuations.

Quarantines are the start of the logistical challenges during a pandemic outbreak.

Florida could have to screen for illness the tourists arriving at airports, which ultimately may shut down. There aren't enough hospital beds to accommodate sick masses. It's not clear how to distribute Tamiflu, an antiviral medicine effective immediately after symptoms appear.

Not to mention the lack of vaccines.

It will take the U.S. three to five years to stockpile doses of a vaccine. Once that's ready, there's no guarantee the vaccine will work as the flu mutates.

On the national level, Leavitt is preparing for the likelihood that basic medicine would be the only health care available at the onset. To naysayers, he says the country can't afford to take chances.

"One might ask, is this Y2K? Is this the little boy who cried wolf? Is this really going to happen?" he said. "Pandemics happen, and one will ultimately be with us."

The federal government has allocated $4.6-million for Florida to start preparing.

The World Health Organization reports that bird flu has killed 91 people since 2003, linked to infected poultry. Scientists worry it could trigger a pandemic if it starts passing person to person.

Although Florida has detailed plans for a pandemic - constantly under revision - state leaders have not predetermined at what point attractions such as Disney World would close. Local governments, schools and businesses need to consider how to handle a bird flu outbreak.

Meanwhile, the state is looking to stockpile basics such as hand sanitizer and face masks to slow the spread of any influenza outbreak, Bush said.

His biggest fear: Disaster would compound if people panic.

"This is all strange, scary stuff," Bush said. "The more we can explain exactly what is going on, the more people will make rational choices, rather than act on their fears."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.