Compared to all the other major disasters that have struck in the last year killing millions of people, a death toll of just over 100 is tiny.

Looks, however, can be deceiving. Those 100 or so bird flu victims in Africa, Asia and Europe are red flags pointing to the possibility of a much bigger problem. If the bird flu strain mutates so that person-to-person transmission is possible, the world will likely see a pandemic.

That remains a big “if.” But it’s an “if” that shouldn’t be ignored. Last week federal experts urged schools to be among the key institutions that prepare for a pandemic.

Officials cited that children age 5 to 18 tend to be the biggest spreaders of flu viruses in the community, so schools may be ordered to close to prevent spreading the disease. Decisions have to be made at the local level determining how to minimize transmission, when to close schools and how education would continue if schools closed for a month or more. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said schools may need to be used as makeshift hospitals, quarantine sites or vaccination centers.

The government’s theme, one so obvious after the Gulf Coast hurricane damage, is that there needs to be coordination among local, state and federal officials. That doesn’t just happen. Local school boards, city councils and county boards must give some attention to preparation of a pandemic.

Some of that preliminary groundwork has started among local government bodies, and in general this region knows how to work well together. But it’s disconcerting that as Blue Earth County recently examined emergency preparation plans, at least one official dismissed a possible outbreak as low on the priority list, saying nothing suggests we’re around the corner from an emergency.

That may be the case, but it would be awfully late in the game to start planning if an emergency is sooner than later. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy told City Pages the human-to-human transmission “could happen tonight.”

Mankato, after the meningitis outbreak in 1995, has learned how quickly a contagious illness can affect an entire community — even when there were only eight confirmed cases. About 30,000 people were vaccinated in three days.

The big hope is all of the preparation for bird flu will be for nothing — that the strain will not change so it can pass easily from person to person. Of grave concern, Osterholm says, is that the avian flu virus mutates in a similar fashion to the way the 1918 virus did. Even if H5N1 doesn’t end up being the source of a flu pandemic, health experts know it is only a matter of time until the next bad bug surfaces to cause trouble.

Osterholm, the former state epidemiologist who many Mankatoans respect for his handling of the meningitis outbreak, has serious concerns about how the world will function if there is a wide-scale infection. Supplies and services would likely come to a standstill.

So communities would be on their own. If that’s the case, our community needs a plan — soon.

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