What can you do to prepare for the possibility of avian flu?
WebMD the Magazine - Feature
After several years of educating myself so that I could answer anxious
questions from my patients about nerve gas, anthrax, swine flu, mad cow
disease, West Nile virus, SARS, and now bird flu, I find myself thinking
wistfully back to 1963 when, as a 10-year-old, all I had to worry about was
total nuclear annihilation.
Pandemic bird ("avian") flu is the latest in a series of health
problems that have kept us in a heightened state of alert lately. This cannot
be good for anybody's sanity. We are wired evolutionarily for brief surges of
adrenaline, "fight or flight" responses that briefly put us in
overdrive. But what engine can remain in overdrive for years at a time without
becoming seriously fried?
When Gina Gallo, a school librarian in Lacombe, La., gets sick, she can take
care of herself. She gets her own medicine, makes her own food, and "deals with
it," as she puts it. But when her fiancé gets a cold, she says he has "a
complete system breakdown."
"The world stops and the whining is incessant," she says. "I am expected to
bring him food, take care of him, and generally treat him like the baby that he
Gallo's fiancé declined to talk with WebMD for this story. Their Mars-Venus
I try to provide logical advice about fears that might just prove real. At
the same time, I like to point out that bird flu at present is mainly a problem
for birds. It is a contagious disease caused by influenza A viruses --- so far
passed easily among birds, but not humans. To date, health experts know of
fewer than 200 cases of human infection worldwide, and these are almost
entirely in patients who had close contact with sick birds. The few cases of
human-to-human transmission have required very close contact with an ill
The truth is, health experts don't know what will happen if bird flu is able
to spread easily from human to human. Previous flu pandemics (1918, 1957, 1968,
and 1977) may be of little value in predicting a pandemic today. On the one
hand, airplanes will help spread the virus more quickly than in the past. But
on the other, we have far more sophisticated tools for early detection and
treatment than we've ever had before.
Meanwhile, what can you do for yourself and your family?
Skip antivirals. Resist the temptation to stockpile
antivirals such as Tamiflu. Shortages created by hoarding would hamper the
ability to treat patients with regular flu, which affects millions of people
and kills about 36,000 annually in the United States. In addition, bird flu
virus will likely become resistant to antivirals if people overuse them.
Practice good hygiene. Since human bird flu would be spread
in a similar way as regular flu --- that is, by respiratory droplets produced
by sneezing or coughing --- take the same steps you would for avoiding regular
flu: Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze, stay home when you're
ill, and so on.
Consider a mask. The jury's still out on the benefit of
using a mask in public. However, infected people could wear a mask to protect
others, and their caretakers can wear one as well.
Stay informed. Check out the Centers for Disease Control's
Pandemic Flu Planning Checklist for Individuals and Families on the CDC's web
Go to the home page and click on "Individual Planning."