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An ounce of prevention...

State and local health officials are urging people to prepare for a possible avian flu pandemic by stockpiling necessities.

Top state health officials say they have already begun personal stockpiles of food, water and other essentials.

Rhonda Stock, director of Becker County public health, says she hasn't started yet, but plans to stockpile enough to last six to eight weeks.

By having a good store of supplies at home, people can stay to themselves and avoid catching or spreading the avian flu, if it mutates into a form that can be passed human-to-human.

Health officials also predict shortages if there is a flu epidemic or similar public health emergency. Stores will run out of items, supplies may not arrive in a timely manner and public utilities -- water, sewer and power -- may not run smoothly if too many employees are sick or absent.

Stock says people should not panic, but rather prepare for a general emergency over time, buying an extra bag of dog food one week and a case of bottled water the next, for instance.

In case of a pandemic, families will be largely on their own.

"We (public health officials) can't take care of the whole country, people have to take care of themselves," she said. "It's a global event, but it's going to be a local disaster -- people need to ask themselves, 'what am I going to do to ride this out?'"

Think of it as a six-week blizzard, she advises. What would you need if you were stuck inside the house for that long with your family? Food, water, medicine, pet food, things like that will be needed for sure, but what about board games, cards, or other things to do if the power is out?

"If you have to isolate to keep yourself healthy for six to eight weeks, could you survive?" Stock asks. "If I had to be an island, could I survive? We do it all the time if a blizzard is coming -- we stock up on milk and bread."

Health officials expect a flu pandemic, if it occurs, to come in waves.

"The first wave will get sick and either recover or die, and then they'll go back to work and the next wave gets sick," Stock said. "Not planning is like going to a recital without practicing the piece -- you have to plan."

No one can accuse the state of not planning.

The Minnesota Health Department's Influenza Pandemic Plan is 378 pages long. The federal plan is about a third of that size, Stock says.

Becker County Public Health also has its own plan, which is an appendage to the county's emergency preparedness plan.

On Thursday, the county will be part of a regional drill to test how smoothly drugs can be distributed from the national stockpile, which will come to Detroit Lakes via Bemidji and Park Rapids.

In this case, a small group of essential personnel at the technical college in Detroit Lakes will be given placebos (plain M&Ms, actually) instead of flu shots, once the "medicine" arrives under sheriff's department escort from Park Rapids.

The gist of the county's pandemic flu plan can be broken down to three areas, Stock said:

n Mass distribution of medical supplies and equipment.

n Mass immunizations.

n Possible isolation and quarantine.

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001 -- when the fear was about smallpox or anthrax -- health officials have been gearing up to distribute mass amounts of medicine to people quickly, and that planning will also work for immunizing essential personnel and their families in a bird flu pandemic, said Dan Holm, emergency management director for the county.

"We have a well developed plan on a mechanism to do that," he added. "We're just going to test one portion of that plan (on Thursday)."

In a pandemic, essential personnel (and their families) could range from medical workers to police and firefighters to select grocery store and gas station employees -- people will need access to food and gasoline, after all, Holm said. Snowplow operators will be needed in the wintertime. Postal workers will be expected to deliver mail. Public works employees have to keep the utilities going.

The list of essential personnel could include thousands of people in Becker County, but it will have to be shortened considerably if fewer bird flu shots are actually obtained by public health, as could be the case in a pandemic, Stock said.

Items to have on hand for an extended stay at home:

n Ready-to-eat canned meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, and soups.

n Prescribed medical supplies such as glucose and blood-pressure monitoring equipment.

n Protein or fruit bars.

n Soap and water, or alcohol-based (60-95 percent) hand wash.

n Dry cereal or granola.

n Medicines for fever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

n Peanut butter or nuts; thermometer; dried fruit; anti-diarrheal medication; crackers; vitamins; canned juices; fluids with electrolytes; bottled water; cleansing agent/soap; canned or jarred baby food and formula; flashlight; pet food; batteries; portable radio; manual can opener; garbage bags; tissues, toilet paper, disposable diapers.

Store a six week supply of water and food and have any nonprescription drugs and other health supplies on hand, including pain relievers, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes, and vitamins.

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