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Bird Flu TV Movie: Grim Worst Case

<P>Some Errors, Some Painful Truths in Worst-Case Bird Flu Movie</P>

Realistic Quarantines?

In the movie, quarantines shut whole neighborhoods off from the world. In real life, modern quarantines are usually voluntary. The idea is to keep people who have been exposed to a disease -- but who aren't yet ill -- from spreading the disease. For example, foreign travelers or people exposed at a public gathering may be quarantined. This is done by asking exposed individuals to remain in their homes or at community facilities. But in extreme cases, entire communities might be closed.

Quarantine is useful only in the earliest stages of an epidemic, when there is still the chance that a virus can be contained. Once there's an epidemic, "social distancing" is more effective. This means closing schools, asking people to avoid public gatherings, and asking people who feel sick to stay at home.

In the movie, health care workers wear flimsy masks for protection. In real life, health care workers use what are known as N95 respirators when treating bird flubird flu patients. N95 dust masks may offer protection. In the event of a bird flu pandemic, they will be widely used. But there's no proof they would really protect people from infection. Even if they did, proper use would be a problem for most people.

In the movie, there is at first no bird flu vaccine. It later turns out there is a French prototype vaccine that may or may not work. Only international sanctions force France to share the formula. In real life, there are prototype bird flu vaccines that may or may not work. Like the movie, in a real pandemic situation countries are unlikely to share drug and vaccine stockpiles if their own nation is in need -- but withholding basic scientific information is unlikely.

Current bird-flu prototype vaccines take two large doses, weeks apart, to stimulate immunity -- clearly no magic bullet to stop a flu pandemic. However, the government is stockpiling prototype vaccines, which may offer some protection to a limited number of health care workers and other critically important workers. In both the movie and real life, it would take at least six months before current technology could start producing a vaccine tailored to the pandemic strain.-->

Supply Shortages

In the movie, essential services, electricity, food, and water become scarce. In a real-life pandemic of a very bad fluflu virus, this could happen when large numbers of people get sick at the same time. Hospitals, too, would be overwhelmed. The U.S. government recommends that people stockpile basic necessities in the event of an emergency.

In the movie, people die because they can't get medicines such as insulin. In a severe, real-life pandemic, medical supplies will be hard to get. Pandemic preparedness planning includes seeing your doctor to ensure an adequate supply of essential medicines.

In the movie, there aren't enough antiflu medicines to go around -- and the drugs soon stop working. In real life, the U.S. is stockpiling enough flu drugs to treat a quarter of the population. That's how many people got sick in past flu pandemics. The U.S. currently has 26 million treatment courses and expects to have 81 million by the end of 2008. While the bird flubird flu virus can become resistant to the flu drug Tamiflu, there's no evidence that Tamiflu-resistant virus is being spread.

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