While the bird flu has not yet appeared in the United States, millions of Americans report being extremely concerned that it will strike here in coming months. Elsewhere, more than 150 people have died from exposure to infected chickens.
But much of the stress being seen here about the bird flu comes from a media and even from ominous-sounding government reports that tell us every day brings us closer to a worldwide pandemic. However, whether it’s the bird flu or swine flu or something else, every day since the last widespread infection always brings us one day closer to the next one. So you have to separate the hype from the legitimate science reporting.
Besides the fact that there is no vaccination currently available for this form of flu (although hundreds are being tested in various research programs here and abroad), there are two primary factors that can weigh against the U.S. when this strain finally makes its way to the U.S. mainland. One is that many Americans are far less careful about basic hygiene that their parents or grandparents were as any trip to a public restroom will tell you; many do not wash their hands before preparing food, after using a bathroom, and after coming in contact with other people even if those people seem to have a cold or other respiratory infection.
The other big issue is that the American public health system is nowhere near what it was a few generations ago. Couple that with the rising number of Americans without any health insurance along with the drastic increases in the cost of medications and medical care, and you have a true prescription for disaster.
Part of the panic being perceived in the public today has not been helped by the government reaction. Instead of beefing up public health resources, the federal government has actually moved to cut the budget to programs that help lower income Americans receive basic health care. To make matters worse, one of the first times President George W. Bush addressed the bird flu in public, he cited the possible need to use the military to force people into quarantine. In a country that prides itself on individual freedom, the concept of being quarantined in military barracks by GIs toting guns weighs heavily on the minds of many.
With little system in place to help identify and treat early patients of the flu, it’s really unclear how even the drastic approach of government-ordered quarantine would help. Remember, too, that we had little National Guard in place for a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina because military resources are stretched thin overseas, so questions remain as to how the government would administer such a plan.
But there is one issue in all of the fears and conjecture about bird flu that remains crystal clear: there are many things normal Americans can do to reduce their risk of exposure. The simple act of regularly washing hands can dramatically cut the risk of infection. People who develop any type of respiratory condition, from the common cold to a simple form of flu, help everyone when they cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing. Those who come into contact with someone who sneezes and coughs should also wash their hands.
One thing no one needs to do is avoid eating chicken. There is no evidence that buying or consuming chicken increases the risk of exposure to avian flu. Only those who work directly with live poultry suspected of contamination have cause for concern and even them, basic steps like hand washing and face masks sharply cut the risk of infection.