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York County pandemic preparation includes partnership

If York County is faced with a regional health emergency such as the avian flu pandemic, officials say they'd likely get little to no federal help.

"They're not going to get help because the flu is everywhere at the same time," said Patrice Goins, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's director of public health preparedness for seven counties, including York County.

So, York County is teaming up with health officials in neighboring Mecklenburg County to get people the help they need during an emergency.

The partnership would ensure that medications and supplies are available to area residents within 48 hours of a declared emergency, as part of the federal Cities Readiness Initiative Program. During an emergency, area agencies would set up distribution sites throughout both counties.

Because of the county's proximity to Charlotte, it might be easier for York County residents working in the city to get medicine from a distribution site there, said Cotton Howell, York County's director of emergency management.

Questions about state's readiness

Last year, a research report said South Carolina was among 13 states not adequately prepared to distribute vaccines and medical supplies during a massive disaster.

Howell and Goins questioned the validity of the report conducted by Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit health advocacy organization.

Goins said that four years ago, South Carolina conducted a mock emergency drill that showed the state had the capacity to quickly dispense medications to a large group.

York County officials began meeting in 2006 to organize a pandemic response plan.

Other pandemic preparations include increasing manpower to distribute medications and supplies, and the development of a database system. The database could record medical trends, such as what types of symptoms people are seeking medical attention for. It also will keep track of the county's medical capabilities, such as the number of available hospital beds, Howell said.

"The magnitude of an emergency preparedness plan is huge," Howell said. "It's an ongoing process."

The country still has much to do to prepare for a pandemic, including vaccine research and public education, according to a March report from Michael Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services.

The report states that scientists believe influenza will cause the next pandemic, and efforts are focused on the avian flu.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, avian flu, a virus mainly affecting birds, has sickened 373 humans and killed 236 people in Asia, Europe, the Near East and Africa. Those infected had been in direct contact with infected poultry and wild birds in rural areas of developing countries. Human-to-human transmission of the virus has been rare.

Dr. Craig Charles, an infectious disease physician at Piedmont Medical Center, said avian flu is a concern because it is a bird flu that suddenly developed the ability to infect people and kill many of them.

Avian flu had the ability to change enough to gain entrance into the human body and cause disease, Charles said. The fear is that the virus will continue to mutate and pass easily among humans. The fact that the flu hasn't gained this ability yet is encouraging and has led some authorities to hope it won't happen, he said.

Although its hard to predict, Charles said, one way avian flu could find its way here would be from an infected person arriving on an airplane.

Avian flu is so deadly to humans, Charles said, because humans have no natural immunity to it, so the body cannot neutralize it before serious damage is done, often causing death.

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