Bird flu risk higher in Aspen? |

Bird flu risk higher in Aspen?

Health officials say Aspen may be at higher risk for an avian flu outbreak than many areas in the United States because of the thousands of tourists who visit from all over the world.And at least one official said she believes a regular flu shot might help reduce the severity and duration of an avian flu infection if it occurs.The ongoing spread of avian flu, otherwise known as bird flu, has worried public health officials in a growing number of countries in Asia and Europe.In the United States, and specifically in the Roaring Fork Valley, public health officials say they can do little but watch the news and wait.At present, the virus is believed to be strictly a bird-to-bird problem, which has spread to domestic flocks of chickens and other poultry from wild bird populations. The few reported cases of human infection are among people who have relatively consistent and close contact with poultry or other bird populations.The cause of concern lies in the fact that avian flu has already mutated into at least two other virus strains, in Europe and in Canada, and further mutations could turn it into a disease that humans can catch from humans. If that happens, health authorities say, it could easily end up mimicking the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people worldwide, including some 50,000 in the United States.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stepped up education about bird flu and about how to minimize exposure.The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says that in the case of a pandemic, infected individuals should stay home to avoid spreading the disease to others. The agency advises residents to begin by stockpiling food, water, personal items, medications and cash at home, “enough for several days or even weeks,” if a pandemic materializes. It also advises residents to develop a “family emergency plan” to cover different contingencies.The agency advises residents to pay greater attention to personal hygiene practices, such as washing hands frequently, covering the mouth when coughing, and staying at home if they feel ill.The Colorado health department also indicates that a vaccine is under development.But a vaccine might not be effective if the virus mutates. And if bird flu mutates into a human strain, one official said, Aspen is a likely place for it to strike.”There’s always the potential that an infection could come into our community with an unknowing tourist,” noted Aspen Valley Hospital infection control coordinator Kathy Gibbard. Gibbard’s job, she said, is “to try to keep patients from getting sicker, and the employees from getting sick and passing it on to the community.”She said she has been monitoring the avian flu story and believes it may be possible that a normal flu vaccine, the kind meant to deal with annual flu outbreaks, could help reduce the severity of an avian flu outbreak.”I feel that any vaccine is worthwhile,” she said. “I feel that that is something that is very beneficial to human beings,” in that it boosts the body’s immune response to disease.And if that is the case, she theorized, someone who has gotten an ordinary flu shot “will have some resistance [to other flu strains, possibly including bird flu]. “You might get sick, but you might not get full-blown influenza. Hypothetically, we hope that it will provide some protection” against avian flu.Other area health officials, while reluctant to endorse the idea, did not entirely dismiss it.”I can’t say that that’s not true,” said Phylis Jaeger of the Garfield County public health office. The best thing to do, she said, is “Stay away from birds, and if birds are sick, report it.”Nationally, health officials cautiously have said existing antiviral drugs might be of some use in combating the effects of a pandemic.More information on issues related to the potential for a pandemic flu crisis is available at and flu vaccine in Pitkin CountyPitkin County has run out of its stock of flu vaccines, and most who want a shot must travel to Garfield or Eagle County.For the second year in a row, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have revealed that there is a shortage of flu vaccines in some areas of the United States.One of those areas is Pitkin County, where Community Health Director Lisa Robbiano said this week that there is only a certain number of vaccines reserved for children and “high-risk” patients.But both Eagle and Garfield counties have remaining stocks of vaccines and are continuing to disperse them to any area residents who come to the county offices.So, Robbiano said, anyone in Pitkin County who needs a flu vaccine is being sent to Eagle or Garfield County, or to a private doctor or medical clinic.Eagle County, according to public health manager Jill Hunsaker, is holding a flu vaccination from 1 to 5 p.m. Friday at the county’s El Jebel Community Center, and a more general immunization clinic at which flu shots also will be available at the same times Monday at the same location.While there is an estimated stockpile of some 80 million doses of flu vaccine available in the United States for the current flu season, regional demand may be higher than expected because of heightened concerns about avian flu or residual fears lingering from the much-publicized vaccine shortage last year, according to the CDC.The CDC said it is working on redistributing the vaccines, moving supplies from areas that received a surplus to areas where a shortage has developed.Garfield County public health nurse Laurel Little said her office believes it has taken care of most of the high-risk people in the county and will administer shots to anyone who comes in and wants one.Health officials indicated the normal peak season for the flu in this area is December and January. They cautioned that young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems should get flu shots as early as possible.John Colson’s e-mail address is

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