CAMP LESTER, Okinawa — With fears of an avian flu pandemic a hot topic in the news in recent weeks, officials at the hospital here say they have a plan on the shelves ready to battle an outbreak.

The U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa has guidance on hand that tells the staff how to respond to the potential threat of someone entering the hospital with symptoms of the flu, according to Lt. Cmdr. Colette Michaletz, the hospital’s Preventive Medicine Department head.

She said plans are coordinated with other government agencies, including Kadena Air Base, the Marine Corps, Pacific Command, Marine Forces Pacific, the Navy’s Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit 6 in Hawaii, and the government of Japan.

“We have contingency plans on several levels,” Michaletz said.

The avian flu strain H5N1 is a viral infection that usually affects wild birds, but can cause disease in chickens and other poultry, Michaletz said.

It’s unusual for humans to contract influenza infections from poultry, she added, but experts have linked transmission of avian flu to humans from exposure to sick birds, bird feces, uncooked poultry and contaminated surfaces.

According to the World Health Organization’s Web site, 116 humans have been diagnosed with the strain and 60 died.

Michaletz said areas with the highest incidents of avian flu in humans are Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. She added the flu has been found in birds in the Soviet Union, China, Japan, Laos, Malaysia and South Korea.

Symptoms of avian flu are that of typical winter cold and flu signs — cough, muscle aches, sore throat and possibly vomiting and diarrhea, according to Cmdr. Daniel Huhn, the hospital’s emergency medicine department head. He said, however, that people with avian flu would likely be much sicker, probably also having pneumonia.

Michaletz said another possible sign of avian flu is coming down with a high fever — greater than 104 degrees — after having traveled to or through an at-risk region in the previous 10 days.

If a patient were to show symptoms, Huhn said, they would wear a mask and be put in a “negative pressure isolation room” to contain the virus.

Caregivers would wear protective equipment, and a test for “influenza A” would be given. If the test were positive, a blood sample would be then sent to a Centers for Disease Control laboratory to test for the specific avian flu strain, he said.

If the hospital ever does see a case, Michaletz said, “immediate notification” would be passed up the chain to the Department of Defense.

“DOD and other government agencies would respond in the very early stages, probably within 24 hours,” she said.

Michaletz said there are no reported cases of human-to-human transfer of avian flu, so even if the hospital saw one case it would not expect a large outbreak. But, she added, there are numerous strains of the flu, and health-care officials are worried the organism could genetically mutate and become contagious.

Although there currently is no immunization for avian flu, there are ways people can to help protect themselves.

“It’s important to get your annual flu shot,” Michaletz said. “It helps because you are less likely to come down with another type of flu, and your immune system will be stronger.”

In addition, Huhn said good hygiene practices offer protection, including frequent hand-washing, getting plenty of rest and steering clear of birds in endemic countries.

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