By Diana Bowley of the News Staff - DOVER-FOXCROFT - A sobering mental picture was painted on Thursday for a group of Piscataquis County residents who likely will help develop a county preparedness and response plan for pandemic influenza.
Federal and state officials believe it's only a matter of time before H5N1, an avian influenza that is viral in nature and is currently circulating in birds in Asia, Africa and Europe, where it has sickened hundreds of people, arrives in the United States.
"We're not here tonight to play Chicken Little and put the fear of God into you," Matt Chandler of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention told the approximately 50 people gathered in the county courtroom. Instead, he said Thursday's meeting was to help county residents prepare.
The fear is the avian influenza might mutate into a form that transmits easily from person to person causing it to become a pandemic threat.
Outbreaks of the bird flu have already been reported in about 30 countries, including most recently in Scotland, Bali and Sudan, according to Chandler.
Like the other 15 counties in the state, Piscataquis County must devise a preparedness plan for such a disaster. Tom Iverson Jr., county emergency management agency director, is heading up the task with help from retired Dr. Ben Kittredge of Milo who will serve as county coordinator.
The concerns, cultural issues and problems to be addressed run the gamut, according to Iverson. Will people have enough food, oil and supplies if a pandemic occurs that sickens the suppliers and their employees, he asked. Who would pick up dead birds and where would they be tested? Are hospitals, funeral directors and schools prepared? "I don't think anybody is ready at this point," he said.
Working on a worst case scenario, Chandler said if a pandemic occurred in Dover-Foxcroft which has a population of 4,200, about one-third of the population or 1,399 people, would become affected. Death is a potential for 140 of those sickened, he said.
Chandler said local communities and counties should not expect federal assistance in such a pandemic; rather, the assistance should come from within.
"Should this hit, your life will be changed forever," Olan Johnston of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday. He said residents should be thinking about themselves, their families, their neighbors and their communities.
Sally Farrand of the Maine Primary Care Association, whose organization will facilitate community coordination, likened the plan to a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle parts have to make a picture.
No one believes the task will be an easy one, but they do consider it a necessary one.
"We're trying to help citizens of this county get through what may be a very trying ordeal," Kittredge said.
Anyone interested in helping with the plan or who wants more information, should call Iverson at 564-8660.
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