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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Nov. 1) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention has begun preparing U.S. insular areas like the Northern Marianas for a possible bird flu pandemic, saying it does not have the capacity to immediately assist the islands in a breakout.

Dr. Mark Keim, a CDC medical officer, said they do not have the capacity to "rescue" the islands nor do they have the responsibility to do so in case of a pandemic. Training local personnel to deal with the situation is necessary, he said.

"No one knows," said Keim when asked how fast the CDC can provide assistance to the CNMI or any American islands in the Pacific in case of a bird flu outbreak.

"It’s not...our responsibility nor would we have the capacity to rescue the CNMI [Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands] — I think the real issue is preventing it from happening," Keim said.

Gov. Juan N. Babauta yesterday scheduled a the press conference about bird flu at 10 a.m., but it didn’t start until after 12 noon because the governor was somewhere else campaigning, Variety was told.

Babauta never showed up for the press conference and was instead represented by his senior policy adviser, Bob Schwalbach.

Dr. Richard Brostrom, the CNMI public health director, said the islands are free from bird flu.

He said the CDC sent Keim to help CNMI doctors and nurses get training in dealing with the bird flu virus.

"We want to assure the community that there’s no bird flu outbreak in the CNMI," Bronstom said. "We’re not caught off-guard.... In terms of potential for a possible bird flu epidemic, there’s lots of preparations ongoing already and there’s much more that’s going to be done. That’s part of the reason Dr. Keim of the CDC is here," he said.

According to CDC, bird flu is an infection caused by avian influenza viruses, which occur naturally among birds, including chickens and ducks.

The bird flu viruses do not usually infect humans but several cases of human infection with such viruses have occurred since 1997.

Keim said over the past three years, 120 cases of human infection have been documented in countries affected by bird flu.

He said the vaccine that treats animals with the virus remains in an experimental stage and is not yet available in the CNMI.

"It has only infected about 120 people in the past three years in the entire world. Even in countries that it’s affecting, it’s not affecting many people. But we know that it’s not in the CNMI and we know that it’s not in the Pacific but we can never be too prepared for that," Keim said.

"What we want to do is not only prepare for it in case it becomes a disease in humans but even better prevent it from ever coming to the CNMI and that’s really the issue," he added.

While most American islands in the Pacific import their livestock products, Keim said there is no threat of getting bird flu since these livestock products come from developed countries like the U.S.

"The issue of the importation of food is one that we’ve heard in the past, but...the illness hasn’t been passed simply by eating cooked chicken," Keim said.

"We can’t always say that because we’re on an island and we’re more vulnerable. In some cases, though, it’s better to be on an island," he added.

CDC data shows that outbreaks of influenza H5N1, or bird flu, occurred in eight countries in Asia — Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam in late 2003 and early 2004.

"At that time, more than 100 million birds in the affected countries either died from the disease or were killed in order to control the outbreak. By March 2004, the outbreak was reported to be under control," the CDC said.

"Beginning in late June 2004, however, new deadly outbreaks of influenza H5N1 among poultry were reported by several countries in Asia — Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. It is believed that these outbreaks are ongoing. Human infections of influenza A (or H5N1) have been reported in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia," it added.

November 1, 2005

Marianas Variety: www.mvariety.com

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