U.S. Tries to Pre-empt Bird Flu Fears
Officials Say Infected Birds May Be Found in U.S. This Year
March 20, 2006 - Wary of public panic if bird flu reaches U.S. shores, Bush
administration officials Monday sought to explain to Americans -- and the media
-- what infected birds do and do not mean.
Top officials responsible for responding to a bird flu outbreak said they
fully expect migratory birds carrying the H5N1 virus to arrive on U.S. soil.
They are focusing on flyways used by birds that winter in South Asia but spend
springs and summers in Alaska.
Experts expect infected wild birds to reach the U.S. "possibly as early
as this year," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Norton said that
between 20 and 100 preliminary positive tests indicating H5N1 infection could
be seen by the end of the year.
Preserving Public Confidence
But officials are also keenly aware of how easily health scares can damage
public confidence. Fears over a 2003 SARS outbreak devastated Asian and
Canadian tourist and hospitality industries when millions of would-be travelers
refused to visit.
One of the key ways migratory birds are thought to have spread H5N1 is by
mixing with domestic livestock. So far bird flu has sickened at least 177
people and killed at least 98, according to the World Health Organization.
U.S. officials are trying hard to head off any potential boycott of the $29
billion-per-year American poultry industry when migratory birds finally are
detected on domestic soil.
On Monday officials resorted to basic public relations methods to drive
their message home. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns repeated a version of a
single statement no less than half a dozen times while speaking to
"A detection of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in birds does not
signal the start of a pandemic in people," he said.
But officials' concerns over public perception may be well-placed. Public
health preparations that include stockpiling of drugs and vaccines are still
years from completion. And while wild bird migrations can't be controlled,
public fear -- at least at first -- is likely to pose a larger threat than does
the flu virus.
Bird Flu Facts
On Monday officials stressed several key facts: first, most American
chickens and turkeys live in factory farm enclosures that completely isolate
them from wild birds. Second, plans are in place to kill or vaccinate domestic
flocks should infected birds be found. Third, properly cooking poultry
completely kills H5N1 viruses. Fourth, the virus still has not shown the
ability to efficiently pass between people, a necessary ingredient for a human
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt is in the middle of a
months-long national tour evaluating state and local pandemic flu readiness
plans. He has called on individuals and local authorities to prepare, noting
that the federal government will never be able to operate in thousands of
communities at once if a pandemic does break out.
Leavitt has sounded many of the same public messages as Norton and Johanns.
But he also expressed a sobering note: "No one in the world is well
prepared for a pandemic."