STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. military in Europe would consider restricting the movement of troops, families and civilians as a way to combat the outbreak of the avian influenza, in the event the virus mutates and starts spreading from human to human.

The military’s plan, as discussed at a conference earlier this month in Stuttgart, would be orchestrated with host nations and U.S. embassies.

It strives to shield troops and families from the disease while also allowing U.S. military missions to continue unfettered.

Most cases of bird flu, which was first discovered in late 2003, have been found in Southeast Asia, where farm workers were infected by the virus due to direct contact with infected, domestic fowl.

Of the approximately 140 cases of bird flu found in humans, more than 80 have been fatal.

Though the vast majority happened in Southeast Asia, two children in Turkey and one girl in Iraq recently died from bird flu.

Cases of the flu have also been confirmed in poultry in Romania, but no humans have contracted the disease there.

Health experts fear that the virus, called H5N1, could mutate into a human-borne virus that could be carried around the world by unwitting victims, much like the common flu.

“The concern is that the mortality rate of this mutated flu would be considerably higher (than that of common influenza),” said Dr. (Army Col.) Edward Huycke, command surgeon for the Stuttgart-based U.S. European Command.

Huycke declined to speculate on the likelihood of the bird-borne virus mutating into one that could be spread by humans.

“I don’t think anyone would hazard a guess,” Huycke said.

“There is a concern, based on the past history of flu viruses, that a mutation could occur, but I don’t think anybody would lay odds.”

Medical personnel are working on a plan if a human-to-human form of the virus is found, officials say.

Victims would be given medical treatment, and people with whom they’d had contact would be identified.

The hospitalized victims would have oral and nasal swabs taken as well as blood, which would be rushed to scientists who’d begin developing a vaccine, Huycke said.

Reaction could possibly include isolation and quarantine of victims, to decrease the chance of the flu spreading.

Plans are already in place in the U.S. and elsewhere to facilitate the speedy development and distribution of a vaccine, according to Air Force Maj. Dana Dane, EUCOM’s chief of force health protection.

“Part of the big-picture response has been the priming of that system,” Dane said.

EUCOM officials stressed that the plan is part of a larger U.S. government plan being led by the State Department, since a pandemic could cross many borders.

Representatives from the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany also attended the conference.

According to Air Force Lt. Col. Ron “Grumpy” Sanders, the European Plans and Operations Center’s contingency response chief, in case of an epidemic, the military’s priorities are to protect its people, carry out missions as usual, and help others cope, if possible.

“Our planning effort is not to contain the avian flu,” Sanders said.

“It’s to manage the environment if it (becomes) a sustainable, human-to-human pandemic, if it comes to that.”

The military is also planning a medical-response exercise in May or June to test its capabilities, Sanders said.

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