ATLANTA – Americans fearful of bird flu are peppering health officials with all sorts of questions: Is it safe to have a bird feeder in my yard? If I see a dead bird, should I report it? Is it still OK to have turkey at Thanksgiving?

The answers are yes, no, and yes.

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been handling an avalanche of phone calls from the public and the media.

“It’s been insane,” said Dave Daigle, a spokesman for the CDC, which has been getting an average of 447,000 hits a day on its avian flu information Web page.

That’s more than the CDC got from people wanting to know about the flu shot shortage last October or the West Nile virus outbreaks in 2003.

And bird flu isn’t even here. It is just now infecting poultry in eastern Europe. So far, it almost never spreads between humans and in two years has infected 117 people, all in Asia. More than 60 have died.

But in the past couple weeks there has been tremendous attention on the virus and U.S. government plans to cope with a possible global outbreak. Health experts believe the bird virus may one day mutate to a form that is not only deadly, but easily spread among people.

The U.S. government has started stockpiling Tamiflu and other medicines that scientists believe might be effective against a pandemic virus.

Some people wonder if they should do the same thing. The manufacturer of Tamiflu, which was created to treat ordinary human flu, advises the drug be taken within 48 hours after flu symptoms begin. So some health officials agree it might be wise to have a supply at the ready, especially if a shortage develops.

But people should suppress the urge to pester their doctors for Tamiflu prescriptions, said Dr. Charles Woernle of the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Those who hoard Tamiflu will reduce supplies for the elderly and others at risk of serious illness and death from conventional flu, he said.

“You’d be denying some folks who have definite, immediate needs,” said Woernle, Alabama’s assistant state health officer for disease control and prevention.

Debbie Crane, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said if people really want to take precautions, they should eat right, wash their hands and take commonsense steps to bolster their health and immune systems.

She also suggested getting a flu shot. The vaccine for the upcoming flu season doesn’t confer protection against bird flu. But protecting people against conventional flu could make them stronger against a new illness, health experts say.

One more thing: Quit smoking, Crane advised.

In North Carolina, officials estimate that 5,600 state residents could die in a bird flu pandemic. Meanwhile, about 10,000 residents of that state die annually because of tobacco use, Crane noted.

Here are answers from CDC and global health officials to some of the questions worried Americans have been asking:

Q: Is it safe to keep a bird feeder in the yard?

A: Yes.

Q: If I see a dead bird, should I report it?

A: No. While there has been avian flu in the United States, it has not been the H5N1 strain that has spread through poultry farms in southeast Asia and into eastern Europe.

Q: We keep a small flock of chickens. Should we get rid of them?

A: No.

Q: If I feel fluish, should I ask my doctor to perform a particular test to check for the bird flu virus?

A: You may ask your doctor to conduct either a rapid diagnostic flu test or a lab test for influenza. If you have a recent travel history to an area where bird flu is endemic, inform your physician.

Q: Should I buy Tamiflu for my home?

A: Tamiflu is effective at treating ordinary flu and scientists believe it may help combat human infections caused by the H5N1 virus. However, the effectiveness of any antiviral medicines such as Tamiflu could change depending on how the virus changes.

Q: Is it safe to eat poultry? Does freezing/cooking destroy the bird flu virus? Is it safe to serve turkey for Thanksgiving?

A: Eating properly handled and cooked poultry is safe. The U.S. government has banned imported poultry from countries affected by bird flu, including H5N1. In addition, European health officials say cooking kills the virus and they are assuring Europeans it is safe to eat chicken.



On the Net:

http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian/


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