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The Best Prep for Bird Flu

The idea of bird flu hitting U.S. shores can be scary. WebMD tells you how to do your part to prepare for the worst.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Ever hear the amusing expression, "So much as been written about everything, it's hard to find anything out about it?" This certainly applies to H5N1, avian flu, bird flu, or whatever you want to call it.

Naturalists are eyeing the migratory birds overhead and scientists are counting the human cases, most, if not all, of whom got it from a bird, not a family member.

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Weighing the Odds

The key to widespread outbreaks or a multicontinent pandemic is for the virus, carried by domestic and wild birds, to morph into a form that can be passed from human to human via a cough or sneeze. Scientists are all over the map on whether this will happen.

Robert G. Webster, the Rosemary Thomas Chair at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., is sometimes called "The FluHunter." Webster recently says there is a 50-50 chance the virus will become transmissible human-to-human. If it does, he projects that half the people in the country would die. He has stored a three-month supply of food and water at his house.

Others cite the swine flu scare of several decades ago. That one fizzled.

The upshot is no one knows for sure. The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and countless local governments are taking bird flu seriously and trying to plan.

The irony may be that for all of this planning, taking care of cases will probably fall to individuals and take place in the home. This is the view of Gratton Woodson, MD, a primary care doctor at the Druid Oaks Health Center in Decatur, Ga., who has made a years-long study of bird flu on behalf of his patients and has published a bird flu preparedness manual to help them cope.

The CDC also has put up a web site helping people to prepare for this possibility. It's www.pandemicflu.gov.

Facing a Pandemic

Tom Skinner, a public affairs officer for the CDC, tells WebMD that the CDC believes individuals should have an emergency preparedness plan for all purposes, including the bird flu, should it come.

"Remember, the confusion after Hurricane Katrina?" Woodson asks. "Multiply that -- the emptied stores, stranded people, lack of transportation, services, and supplies -- times every state and probably every continent."

You couldn't ride it out for a few weeks -- the flu would probably come in waves, and even come back to an area, according to Woodson.

Both Woodson and the government are operating on the assumption that a vaccine, though in the works, probably will not be ready by the time the virus got cranking. Supplies might be scanty compared with need in a genuine pandemic.

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