Facts about the bird flu

Q & A on avian flu

Q: Do I have to worry about catching bird flu, or is the threat of a pandemic overblown?

A: If you live in the United States, there has yet to be a reported case of birds, animals or humans with the H5N1 virus. What has scientists concerned is that the disease has been moving west, from Asia into Europe and Africa, touching at least 43 countries and killing millions of birds since 2003. It appears to be spreading via wild birds as well as poultry. Between this spring and autumn, migratory birds could bring the virus to the United States through any of four major routes; many scientists are focused on the one through Alaska and Western states. In other countries, avian flu has killed some people and pets, but it has yet to manifest itself as highly transmissible from person to person.

Q: If it hits the United States, how quickly will avian flu spread?

A: That depends on how the virus mutates between now and then. It also depends on the controls in place in the poultry industry, the public health infrastructure, and airlines and other transit systems; how quickly and effectively vaccines and treatments could be produced and distributed; and whether uninfected people could sequester themselves from contagious people soon enough, if necessary. So far, the disease mostly has been contagious from bird to bird. Millions of birds have died. Fewer than 200 cases in people have been confirmed and all in Asia, but the fatality rate in humans is more than 50 percent. If the virus mutates in a way that makes it more likely to spread from person to person, without losing strength, scientists say it could become a pandemic and kill millions of people worldwide. But it may remain predominantly a problem for birds.

Q: Can I get bird flu from eating chicken?

A: Not if it’s properly cooked, officials say. That means heating bird meat all the way through to at least 158 degrees Fahrenheit _ no pink meat _ according to the World Health Organization, and cooking eggs until the yolks set. The danger, scientists say, is in making contact with live or uncooked poultry that has the disease, or with infected poultry feces or juices, directly or via contaminated surfaces. In any case, at this point, officials say no U.S. poultry has the virus.

Q: Isn’t there a bird flu vaccine?

A: Not really. Vaccines are produced each year for the seasonal flu, and some antiviral prescription drugs can reduce seasonal flu symptoms. These might provide some relief but are not considered sufficient. Vaccine for the H5N1 virus is under development but is not commercially available. If the avian flu became a human flu pandemic, new vaccine likely would need to be tailored to the mutated virus _ and that could take months after an outbreak.

Q: How do I stay informed about avian flu, and what should I do to prepare?

A: Visit the U.S. government’s Web site, http://www.pandemicflu.gov, or call 800-232-4636; the World Health Organization’s site is http://www.who.int/en/; the World Organization for Animal Health’s site is http://www.oie.int