Americans wary about capacity to deal with bird flu, poll says


WASHINGTON (AP) – Their expectations shaken by Katrina, Americans are divided over whether the government is likely to do a good job handling the bird flu if it reaches the U.S., a poll finds. People want a resolute response that includes quarantines if Americans do become infected.

The AP-Ipsos survey, out Friday, found widespread belief that birds will become infected in this country in the next year, as the government has predicted.

One-third worry someone in their family will get the bird flu.

Fear is certain to spread if the virus is found in the United States: Half of the people questioned said they thought the bird flu would kill them if they contracted it. Among the most concerned: women, older people, minorities, poorer people and the less educated.

The actual chances of death from the virulent strain of the bird flu spreading through Asia, Europe and Africa are not known, mainly because there is no way to tell how many contract the virus. It’s possible some who get it recover without the virus even being detected.

Among the 204 known cases so far overseas since 2003, 113 people have died, according to new World Health Organization figures Friday.

The poll found only one in 10 people has prepared for an outbreak in any way despite federal recommendations that Americans make contingency plans to work from home, to deal with school closings and put away at least modest amounts of food and water for any emergency.

Overall, more than 200 million birds have died from the disease or been slaughtered in efforts to contain it.

Right now, the danger comes from handling sick chickens, not from eating properly cooked poultry. The health concern is that the strain will mutate so it can be easily spread among people.

This is considered most likely to happen in Asia and be carried from there by travelers. The U.S. government is stepping up inspection of migratory wild birds, and poultry companies are testing nearly every flock for the first signs of the virus.

Americans are far from reassured that if an outbreak among humans happens, the government can control it.

In the poll, 52 percent said they were not confident the government would handle an outbreak among humans properly; 48 percent were confident. About six in 10 expect U.S. birds to become infected.

“I saw what happened to the Hurricane Katrina people,” said Stephen Barbas, a 61-year-old food distributor in Rochester, N.Y., who rated his confidence in the government as “not good” when it comes to the bird flu.

As one who delivers food to hospitals, nursing homes and schools, he is sensitive to the risks of the virus and says, “I’ve been getting ahead on stocking up the freezer.”

In Cle Elum, Wash., Katia Merkel, 42, is less worried about an outbreak but no more convinced federal officials will be up to the task.

“Everyone has been talking about the hurricane response to Katrina – don’t think it was timely or appropriate,” she said. “Lots of government officials are burying their heads in the sand.”

The poll findings are consistent with others indicating a diminished faith in the government’s ability to deal with emergencies. In an AP-Ipsos poll in February, measuring public opinion fallout from the last hurricane season, 52 percent said they were not confident about the government’s ability to handle a future disaster; 47 percent were confident.

The new survey found strong majorities in favor of all options presented to them to contain any outbreak among humans.

These were: quarantining those who have been exposed to the bird flu, closing the borders to visitors from countries that have experienced the flu, closing schools, offering experimental vaccines or drugs, and encouraging people to work from home.

No proven vaccine can be developed until the bird flu starts spreading from person to person, revealing the exact H5N1 strain that must be fought. Brewing a precise match would take months; the government is slowly stockpiling doses of vaccine against an earlier H5N1 strain that might buy some time.

Most people in the poll realized they can’t depend on the regular winter flu vaccine to protect them from the bird flu.

Lisa Crisson, 40, a Republican consultant who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., near the waterfowl-rich reaches of Chesapeake Bay, worries about “another hit to the food supply” in an era of periodic shellfish concerns as well as mad cow disease. (The U.S. has had three cases of mad cow disease in cattle.)

She worries, too, about her three cats getting bird flu. Authorities overseas have reported several cases of house cats and wild cats getting the virus from eating an infected bird, but little is known about the risk of that happening on a larger scale.

In Sanford, Fla., Kim Medlong, 53, has taken the prospect of bird flu seriously, especially since he heard that President Bush was reading a book about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed millions. “That put a real exclamation point on it,” he said.

Medlong planted 18 varieties of fruits and vegetables in his backyard and stockpiled medicine and water in case of bird flu or the usual Florida curse. “If not the bird flu, then the hurricanes,” he said.

The poll of 1,001 adults was conducted Tuesday to Thursday with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Associated Press writer Will Lester contributed to this story.

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AP-ES-04-21-06 1545EDT