SIKESTON -- When it comes to avian influenza, the question isn't if it will become a widespread disease, but when.
"Right now it's really a watch-and-wait kind of thing," said Autumn Grim, senior epidemiology specialist for the Missouri Department of Health covering the Southeast District.
Currently, the H5N1 strain of the virus is the one people are looking out for. "The H5N1 strain is primarily a disease of certain types of birds," said Mary Kay Hager, a public information administrator with the Department of Health and Senior Services. "We want residents to realize that the appearance of avian influenza in birds does not signal the beginning of a human influenza pandemic."
In its current form, the virus does not easily pass from poultry to humans and there is no efficient transmission from human to human, presenting a low risk to human health, Hager said.
The concern for avian influenza is that the strain would mutate and change to a form that spreads more easily from human to human.
If the pandemic does hit, it will take time to develop treatments. "This would be a novel virus we haven't ever been exposed to," Grim said. "It would take some time for a vaccine to be developed specifically for that virus."
According to the latest numbers provided by the World Health Organization, there have been 129 deaths and 227 confirmed cases of avian flu worldwide as of June 16. The disease has not struck in the United States.
But, it's important to be ready for the worst. "Be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least 96 hours or four days on your own," said Jerry Lathum, emergency response planner with the New Madrid County Health Department, who serves Scott, New Madrid, Mississippi, Pemiscot and Dunklin counties.
The health department is promoting a "Ready in Three" program, which has three key tips families should remember for disaster preparedness: having a plan, creating a kit, and staying stationary after disaster hits.
"Don't get out and run up and down the road," Lathum advised. "You may already be contaminated and spread it to your next door neighbor." Instead, stay put and wait for directions from authorities.
And people can listen to those directions on a radio or other device that enables external communication that should be included in a safety kit. Other supplies that should be included in the kits include water, food, clothing, first aid supplies and a blanket or "something to stay warm because we don't know what we're facing," Lathum said.
Grim, Hager and Lathum advised practicing basic health habits to avoid a huge pandemic. People should remember to wash their hands frequently with soap and water, cough or sneeze into a tissue, sleeve or other barrier, throw away tissues in a wastebasket, stay at home when sick, and keep family immunizations up-to-date.
Public health agencies are helping prepare for an outbreak. In May, Missouri received a $1.89 million grant from the Centers from Disease Control. "The overall goal is to improve the state's ability to respond to pandemic influenza if it were to happen," Hager said.
Eighty-three percent of the money will be directed to local public health agencies to develop plans in communities and look at procedures for disease investigation, prevention of secondary infections, disease containment and how mass antivirals will be distributed, Hager added.
Different levels of government are preparing for the disaster to strike, Lathum said. One of the first steps is to confirm what the outbreak is, through surveillance and investigations.
Grim said their office has already heightened surveillance, contacting local doctors' offices and schools to find out how many students are out sick or how many patients have flu-like symptoms.
"Those are usually our first indicators that we've got a problem," Grim said. Hager advised families to research the disease. Information can be found about avian influenza and how to prepare for it by visiting the Department of Health's Web site at www.dhss.mo.gov, or at local health departments.