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R.I. to plan for a pandemic

CRANSTON, R.I. -- If a strain of the avian flu were to hit Rhode Island, it could sicken 20 percent to 30 percent of the population, spread quickly, and overwhelm the healthcare system, a state official warned Friday.

David Gifford, director of the state Department of Health, briefed dozens of local emergency management officials amid mounting concern over the bird flu in Asia. There have been no reported cases of humans spreading the bird flu to other humans, but Gifford said it's crucial to prepare for a widescale flu outbreak.

China confirmed its first human cases earlier this week, and multiple poultry flocks in that country have been infected since mid-October.

''If this thing spreads, and it spreads as rapidly as it's possible -- if the worst were to occur -- then, you know, we've got a huge problem on our hands," Governor Don Carcieri said.

''The concern is clearly that at some point this virus will change and mutate and acquire the ability to spread human to human," Gifford said during the briefing.

Typical symptoms of the flu include a cough, high fever, and joint aches. The virus can spread by coughing, sneezing, and hand-holding, Gifford said. Those infected often are contagious a day or two before showing symptoms.

Carcieri has named Gifford chairman of a state panel charged with completing a plan to prevent and respond to a pandemic flu outbreak.

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