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Bird Flu: 10 Questions, 10 Answers

What You Can Do; What the Government Is Doing


Could flu drugs protect people from getting the flu? Yes and no.

People who are stockpiling Tamiflu likely will take the drugs at the wrong time, in the wrong way. That's likely to offer little protection -- and to spur the virus to become even more resistant to Tamiflu.

But in a community experiencing a flu pandemic, Tamiflu and Relenza could be quite effective, says flu expert Anne Moscona, MD, professor of pediatrics and microbiology and immunology, and vice chairwoman of pediatrics research at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York.

The drugs could be used to protect people with known exposure to someone infected with pandemic flu virus.

"Nobody says these drugs are going to protect everybody," Moscona tells WebMD. "But in an epidemic, a drug that prevents as little as 50% of transmission, even that has a role."

Vaccines, not antiviral drugs, are the key to stopping the flu. An experimental H5N1 vaccine has been made -- a major scientific achievement. New ways of using it already are in the works.

But the first batch of this prototype vaccine likely will not be a good match for whatever bird flu virus eventually emerges to cause a pandemic. New batches of vaccine will have to be made. That process would take more than a year before most people can be immunized. And it will take two shots, weeks apart, before a person is protected. Meanwhile, experts suspect that modern transportation would carry flu around the world.

Since a vaccine won't immediately be available, flu drugs will be a major line of defense. But there won't be enough of the drugs to go around unless the next pandemic waits several years to strike.

6. Should individuals stock up on flu drugs?

No. Several flu experts tell WebMD that they are not stocking up on flu drugs, and they strongly recommend that individuals follow their lead.

Why? First of all, the drugs are in short supply. In the event of a pandemic, public health workers will need all the flu drugs they can get in order to treat people actually exposed to the virus. The drugs won't do nearly as much good sitting in people's medicine cabinets.

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