For The Birds
If you believe all the stories in the media, the bird flu is potentially the next plague. Are the news companies creating paranoia to sell their newspapers and increase ratings of their news programs? To find out the truth, I contacted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spokesperson Dave Daigle. In fact, the CDC is not underestimating the threat. According to Daigle, CDC's position is that it is not a matter of if but when the next flu pandemic will hit... and the bird flu virus could play a part in it. The great fear is that a mutated strain of bird flu could develop and spread from human to human. Now what?
BIRD FLU: A PRIMER
Public health authorities have been struggling to control the bird flu virus known as Influenza A/H5N1 since 1997, when it first occurred in both poultry and humans in Hong Kong. This was the first instance ever found in which a flu virus was transmitted directly from birds to humans -- most likely from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. Six people died. Since that time, there have been additional outbreaks of bird flu in Asia, where approximately 50 people have died of the illness. Outbreaks have come to American soil, with poultry flocks in Texas and Delaware affected last year, though the outbreak was confined to birds and did not affect humans. The US Department of Agriculture (http:// www.usda.gov) monitors these outbreaks. There also have been subsequent outbreaks of bird flu in people abroad. Although these have been small and were not sustained, public health authorities are taking no chances. Thailand, Vietnam and China are taking aggressive steps to control the spread of bird flu, which include culling sick chickens and ducks, vaccinating birds, banning the transport of sick poultry and exacting heavy penalties on those who sell sick birds at markets. More than 100 million chickens and ducks have died or been culled in 10 countries and territories across Asia.
THE FEAR: HUMAN-TO-HUMAN TRANSMISSION
So far, most human cases of bird flu can be traced to direct contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces, according to the CDC. Scientists do not believe, at least at this point, that the virus has mutated into a form that can be easily passed from person to person. Experts at CDC and elsewhere around the world are closely monitoring outbreaks of bird flu in humans, since influenza viruses have the ability to change into forms that can spread easily among people. The bird flu kills three out of four people infected with it. No one has died from bird flu in the US. To make matters worse, current drugs have not proven effective against bird flu. At present, four different influenza drugs -- amantadine (Symadine and Symmetrel), rimantadine (Flumadine), oseltamivir (TamiFlu) and zanamivir (Relenza)) have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment or prevention of influenza although it is not certain if they would be effective against a new strain of bird flu. While all four are effective to some degree against influenza A viruses, flu strains can become resistant to these drugs. According to the CDC, analyses of some of the A/H5N1 viruses isolated from poultry and humans in Asia in 2004 already show resistance to two of the medications (amantadine and rimantadine). CDC monitoring of bird flu viruses for resistance to antiviral medications continues.
TAKING ACTION AGAINST THE BIRD FLU
The battle against the bird flu virus is proceeding on many fronts. According to Daigle, CDC has deployed teams to Asia to investigate and has increased its stockpile of antiviral medications. The first doses of an experimental vaccine are about to be tested, and the government has put a renewed emphasis on research programs and disease surveillance. CDC also is taking steps to protect travelers. If you plan a trip to Asia, visit CDC's Web sites ( www.cdc.gov/travel/seasia.htm and http:// www.cdc.gov/travel/eastasia.htm) to check for travel advisories. Also, the CDC advises that you take sensible precautions such as...
*Avoid poultry farms and open markets where live poultry are raised or kept.
*Avoid direct contact with sick or dead poultry.
*Clean your hands often, using either soap and water or waterless, alcohol-based hand rubs.
*If you return with an illness from any area of the world, seek prompt medical attention.
Additionally, it is wise to eat only well-cooked meats. Do not consume poultry when traveling in affected areas.
KEEP YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM STRONG
Keep in mind that we all are exposed to many different germs every day. Whether you get sick or not from the germs is, to a large extent, a function of the strength of your immune system. The stronger your immune system, the less likely you are to get bird flu or any other type of flu. Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, offers these suggestions for maintaining a strong immune system...
*Multivitamins and minerals. The core of any immune-enhancement program is a high-quality multiple vitamin and a mineral supplement. Because many vitamins are water-soluble, Dr. Rubman recommends that you take a supplement twice daily. There is no need to worry about toxicity from the dosages found in most over-the-counter multis, he says.
*Antioxidants. While there are many individual supplements that boost the immune system -- and can be helpful in specific situations -- the easiest way to ensure that you are at your peak is with an "all-in-one" antioxidant supplement that combines the best immune boosters. Choose one from a reputable company, such as Eclectic Institute (800-332-4372) or Herb Pharm (800-348-4372), and take it twice a day along with your multiple vitamin and mineral supplement.
*Rest. The more rested you are, the stronger your body. Get six to eight hours of sleep each night.
Although there is in fact real potential danger in the bird flu, unless you are traveling to Asia, this particular fear shouldn't occupy too much of your psychic time and space. At least for now, the best course you can take is to exercise the same common-sense precautions you would to prevent flu or infectious disease of any kind, and keep yourself as healthy as you can.