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Avian Flu: 10 Questions, 10 Answers

What You Can Do; What the Government Is Doing

3. What can I do about bird flu?

If a bird flu pandemic occurs, there's a very good way to minimize the chance of getting infected: Wash your hands. Frequent hand washing is the best way to avoid a viral infection -- including the flu. Remember to use soap and warm water, and to scrub all parts of the hand. The rule of thumb, as it were, is to scrub the hands and fingers until you finish singing the alphabet song to yourself.

Should a flu pandemic break out, pay attention to news reports, and follow public health advisories. Panic is the least helpful response to any emergency.

It's easy to come up with very scary worst-case scenarios for a bird flu pandemic. The worst case is rarely the actual case, but it's wise to be prepared for an emergency.

It's definitely a good idea to provide your household with the items in the government-recommended checklist. How much of these supplies should you have? In any given community, an outbreak is expected to last six to eight weeks. This would be followed by at least two new pandemic waves.

Do you need a protective face mask? That's one item notably missing from the government checklist.

Flu most often spreads from large droplets coughed or sneezed from a sick person. These large droplets don't travel more than 3 feet. People are most likely to spread flu viruses in the first two days of illness, although they first become infectious up to a day earlier.

If a sick person can tolerate it, a normal surgical mask (tie on) or procedure mask (ear loops) would make them less likely to spread infection. The CDC advises offering these masks to a person infected with flu-related cough. If a mask isn't available, coughing or sneezing into a tissue would work almost as well.

The World Health Organization says that face masks aren't likely to significantly affect the spread of a pandemic virus. They don't advise them -- but as people are going to use them anyway, they don't advise against them, either.

Flu expert John Treanor, MD, tells WebMD that wearing a facemask would help a little bit: It would stop you from touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. That would help, because a major mode of flu transmission is from touching people or surfaces contaminated with flu virus and then touching your face.

But no expert really expects facemasks to prevent the spread of pandemic flu virus in a community. Everybody wore one in 1918; it was still a terrible pandemic.

The most effective facemasks for protecting uninfected people, Treanor says, would be the N95-rated masks. These disposable masks are relatively cheap -- although more expensive than surgical masks -- but likely will be in short supply if a pandemic arrives. They should offer "some protection," Treanor says, but "no one thinks they will be completely effective." N95 masks aren't necessary for infected people.

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