Bird flu movie ruffles feathers

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RALEIGH, N.C.- Health officials from California to New York were taking steps Tuesday night to allay any fears that might arise from a TV movie that portrays a fierce bird flu outbreak.

“We’re trying to take advantage of a teachable moment,” Leah Devlin, North Carolina’s health director, said of the ABC movie “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America.”

The H5N1 strain of bird flu hasn’t been detected in the United States, but it has spread from Asia to Africa and Europe and has killed or led to the slaughter of more than 200 million animals. At least 113 people who lived close to birds have died, and health officials fear the virus could evolve and be passed between humans, sparking a global pandemic.

The movie plays up that possibility. Bodies pile up so quickly that dump trucks must haul them away, and barbed wire fences keep neighborhoods quarantined.

“My understanding is this movie takes that worst-case scenario and plays it out,” Devlin said. “They go beyond fact, and certainly it is not a documentary.”

The movie could set off unwarranted fears because some viewers may not be fully aware of the disease, Devlin said.

Public health officials in North Carolina planned to work late Tuesday to take calls until midnight on a consumer hot line that normally operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. In California and New York, county officials were given “talking points” that stress the movie is a dramatization.

California’s information emphasized steps people can take to protect themselves, such as frequently washing their hands, covering their sneezes and staying home from work when they feel ill, said Tracey Derenzy, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Health Services.

The Texas Department of State Health Services posted information on its Web site reminding viewers the movie was fiction but noting that people should be prepared for a pandemic.

“If it raises awareness to help them be able to plan, that’s great,” spokeswoman Emily Palmer said.

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