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How much should I worry about the Avian flu?

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The recent widespread outbreak of Asian strain avian influenza (AI), or “bird flu,” within waterfowl and poultry populations in the Eastern Hemisphere is causing concern among many in the United States. Any widespread global outbreak of disease in animals, birds or human beings is referred to as a pandemic. We are currently experiencing a pandemic of Asian strain AI in wild and domestic birds in Asia, Europe and Africa.

Avian influenza viruses typically do not infect people. A unique characteristic of this Asian strain of AI is that human beings have contracted the disease and more than 100 people have died. Virtually all human cases have been associated with close and prolonged contact with live poultry. To date, no sustained human-to-human transmission has taken place. Should this occur, however, a flu pandemic in the world’s human population could become the subsequent scenario.

A human flu pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges for which people have little or no immunity and for which there is no vaccine. The disease spreads easily from person to person, causes serious illness and can sweep across the country and around the world in a very short time.

Many experts believe that it is not a matter of if, but when, the next human flu pandemic occurs. We have experienced three such outbreaks within the last 100 years. History would suggest future pandemics are very probable. No one can predict with certainty if the current Asian strain of bird flu will be the one causing the next human pandemic; this remains to be seen. However, a watchful eye on this virus serves as a reminder and incentive to bolster preparations before the next human global flu outbreak actually takes place.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt recently recommended that residents buy and store extra food and water in case this Asian strain of bird flu, or any other potential strain of influenza virus, becomes a pandemic in the human population.

The impact of a pandemic could be very disruptive to everyday life. An especially severe influenza pandemic could lead to social disruption, economic loss, high levels of illness and death. Impacts could range from school and business closings to the interruption of basic services such as public transportation and food delivery.

In the event of a pandemic, it is important to be prepared, but not to panic. Plan for the possibility that usual services may be disrupted. These could include services provided by hospitals and other health care facilities, banks, stores, restaurants, government offices and post offices. Consider how to care for people with special needs in case the services they rely on are not available.

Recognize that working may be difficult or impossible. Ask your employer how business would be conducted during a pandemic. Find out if you can work from home. Plan for the possible reduction or loss of income if you are unable to work or your place of employment is closed.

In the event of a pandemic, schools may be closed for an extended period of time. Talk to teachers, administrators and parent-teacher organizations to learn how education would be handled. Help schools plan for pandemic influenza. Talk to the school nurse or school health center. Home learning activities and exercises would be essential if schools close.

The American Red Cross recommends that residents have enough food and water in the home to survive ten days without going to the store. The following checklist includes information and resources you may need in case of a flu pandemic.

Store a supply of water and food, which can also be useful in other types of emergencies such as power outages and disasters. Food items to store include ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, vegetables and soups, protein or fruit bars, hard candies, dry cereal or granola, peanut butter or nuts, dried fruit, crackers, powdered milk, canned juices, bottled water, canned or jarred baby food, formula and pet food. Store medical, health, and emergency supplies, including such things as glucose and blood-pressure monitoring equipment, soap and water or alcohol-based hand wash, medicines for pain and fever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, cough and cold medicines, a thermometer, anti-diarrheal medication, vitamins, fluids with electrolytes, cleaning agents such as soap and bleach, flashlights and batteries, a portable radio, a manual can opener, garbage bags, tissues, toilet paper and disposable diapers. Limit the spread of germs and prevent infection by teaching your children to wash hands frequently with soap and water and to cover coughs and sneezes with tissues. Be sure to model those behaviors. Teach your children to stay away from others as much as possible if they are sick and be sure to stay home from work and school if you are sick. Volunteer with local groups to prepare and assist with emergency response. Get involved in your community and schools as they work to prepare for an influenza pandemic. The effects of a pandemic can be lessened if preparations are made before it hits. Preparation information and checklists are available at pandemicflu.gov and avianflu.gov.

Posted on 31 Mar 2006

Adrie Roberts
County Director, Family & Consumer Science Agent, Cache County

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