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Editorial: Threat of bird flu is a challenge for all of us

The significance of the bird flu danger shocked many of the Minnesota business and health care leaders attending a meeting Tuesday in St. Paul.

As Capitol Bureau Chief Don Davis reported today in the Tribune, the result of the bird flu mutating to humans would be like "a 12- to 18-month global blizzard."

Mike Osterholm, a former Minnesota state epidemiologist and current adviser to federal health officials and University of Minnesota professor, warned state leaders of the bird flu danger.

If the bird flu spreads to humans, Osterholm predicts:

n Many Americans will stay at home to avoid coming in contact with people who may be contagious.

n Hospitals and medical facilities will be overwhelmed.

n Schools would be shut down.

n Nation, state and even local borders would be closed to prevent the bird flu from arriving.

n More than 30,000 Minnesotans could die if a flu pandemic reached 1918 outbreak levels.

n Both urban and rural Minnesotans would have an equal chance of being infected first.

The public health dangers of such an outbreak are significant.

There was no estimate of the economic impact of a flu pandemic, but it certainly would be significant.

Businesses in west central Minnesota would not be able to receive goods for production, let alone ship finished products out to national and worldwide markets. It would be questionable whether employees could travel from surrounding communities to their jobs.

The danger is just as significant to the state's poultry -- turkey and chicken -- industries. Industry and government experts believe the poultry industry here in Minnesota is safe as local flocks are kept isolated from people and wild birds. But a bird flu outbreak could impact poultry meat consumption as well as interrupt production.

Willmar is at the center of the state's defense as the state's poultry testing lab is located here.

Osterholm's address Tuesday demonstrated the significance of the danger. He also criticized Minnesota and other states' preparation for fighting the pandemic.

It is important that public officials at all levels prepare appropriately and promptly to develop and implement pandemic-fighting plans. If they do not, it could be too late.

This pandemic danger is a serious threat to the security of the state as well as the country.