Hawaii braces for the worst

Precautions

March 05, 2006|By KIRSTEN SCHARNBERG | KIRSTEN SCHARNBERG,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HONOLULU -- The plans, detailed and terrifying, are for the worst-case scenario.

One section of this city's bustling, tourist-filled airport could be converted into an emergency quarantine station for patients suspected of carrying avian influenza. Air filters would kick on to prevent the deadly virus from spreading. Medical personnel entering the quarantine area would wear protective suits.

As avian flu continues to spread across the globe, health officials are paying close attention to Hawaii, the nation's gateway to Asia and the state where some experts believe the much-feared H5N1 virus could first be detected on American soil.

In what is being seen as a model for the rest of the United States, Hawaii has become the first state to establish an airport surveillance program to test visibly ill passengers for avian flu, many arriving from nations where the virus has proved deadly.

A tourism-driven state with an Asian visitor-to-U.S. resident ratio that surpasses any other place in America, Hawaii has gone much further than just testing visitors for avian flu, so far only on a voluntary basis.

Because the islands sit on a migratory bird path that between April and August will bring to Hawaii several bird species believed to be possible carriers of avian flu, state scientists are launching a push to routinely test birds, domestic and migratory, throughout the state.

A new lab capable of testing human mucus samples for the virus - samples that once had to be sent to a government lab in Atlanta - has opened on the island of Oahu in recent months.

And because Hawaii is isolated from the rest of the United States, its businesses, hospitals and families have begun to prepare for the possibility that the state, which has only about a week's worth of food, might be cut off from supply ships and easy mainland air travel should a flu pandemic grip either Hawaii or other parts of the United States.

By virtually everyone's estimation, Hawaii would face unique challenges in the event of a U.S. pandemic.

Hawaii's economy is deeply dependent on tourism, a source of revenue that would disappear almost immediately upon detection of a flu that spreads by human-to-human contact.

Kirsten Scharnberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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