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Vets review pandemic history

"Why is there so much concern about bird flu? Because this has happened before," said Dr. Michael Greger.

BY HEATHER MOYER | ARLINGTON, Va. | June 2, 2006

"Why is there so much concern about bird flu? Because this has happened before," said Dr. Michael Greger.

Greger spoke during an avian flu workshop Thursday at the Humane Society of the United States' (HSUS) Animals in Disaster Conference.

Referencing the flu pandemic of 1918, Greger said a possible avian flu pandemic could be even more devastating. "Sixty million Americans get the flu every year - what if it turns deadly?" said the director of public health and animal agriculture for the HSUS' farm animal welfare department. "That's what keeps people up at night."

The avian flu workshop at the conference also included two veterinarians from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). All urged the public and responders to not panic, but rather to take the threat seriously and prepare.

Between 50 and 120 million people died in 1918's pandemic, and Greger said if extrapolated to today's population levels, between 180 and 360 million could die. "1918's flu killed more people in 25 weeks than AIDS has in 25 years," he said.

The three health officials also spoke more on the makeup of the actual H5N1 virus, with the USDA representatives including discussions on how the USDA is regulating the U.S. poultry and farming industry's biosecurity to help keep the bird flu from infecting any birds in the country.

The USDA representatives also touched on the prevention measures being taught to bird hobbyists - people who may own a few chickens, ducks, or turkeys for their own use or enjoyment.

So far worldwide, the H5N1 virus has killed 127 people of the 224 people it's infected since 2003. The needed spark for a pandemic has not happened yet: easy human-to-human transmission. "Currently with H5N1, it's good at killing people but not at spreading," said Greger, noting the virus' case mortality rate being above 50%.

As Thursday's bird flu panelists cautioned people to not panic, they also discussed why bird flu may have become more prevalent. The doctors pointed toward more industrialized poultry farming with thousands of birds being kept confined in close spaces in large facilities. "When you cram that many birds into a football-field sized facility with no room, sitting in their own manure - you are asking for a problem," said Greger.

Greger said researchers are investigating a vaccine for the bird flu, but for now the only drug making an impact is Tamiflu. According to Greger, some health officials say one part of the public's prevention plans could include convincing one's doctor to write them a Tamiflu prescription now - just in case.

When discussing how the public can respond to a bird flu pandemic, he said the basic prevention is very simple. "Everything you need to know about preventing a pandemic you learned in kindergarten: wash your hands," said Greger.

He went on with four tips for prevention in case of a bird flu pandemic. Avoid confined spaces with other people, wash your hands, don't touch your face and use alcohol-based hand sanitizers.


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Related Links:

Humane Society of the United States

World Health Organization Avian Flu website

U.S. Pandemic Flu website

U.S. Department of Agriculture Bird Flu website

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