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The Bird Flu: What Parents Need to Know
The news has been filled with reports about the spread of bird flu, also known as avian influenza. There has also been discussion about a possible upcoming “pandemic influenza,” or worldwide outbreak of a strain of flu that could cause serious illness and death. Parents may wonder, “Do we need to worry about this? What precautions should we take to keep our children safe?”

Here is what the health authorities have to say.

What is bird flu?
Bird flu is an infection caused by strains of influenza virus that occur naturally in birds. Wild birds and farm birds (chickens, ducks and turkeys) can become infected. Wild birds usually don’t get sick with the virus, but farm birds can get sick and die. One strain of bird flu, H5N1 influenza, is currently spreading from Asia through the Middle East, Europe, Africa and other regions.

What is the danger of bird flu to humans?
So far, there has only been limited spread of bird flu to humans. Most of the people who caught it were infected by handling infected poultry. Unfortunately, many of the people who have contracted bird flu have gotten very sick with fever, sore throat, cough, muscle aches, eye infections and pneumonia. Approximately half of them have died.

Only rare cases of bird flu have spread from one person to another, and it has not yet continued to spread beyond the second person. At this time, the bird flu is not thought to spread easily among people. But it is possible that, over time, the virus may mutate or change and become more contagious among humans.

What is an influenza pandemic?
An influenza pandemic is a severe worldwide outbreak of flu. It is different from the yearly wintertime flu because it is caused by a new virus strain to which people have not developed immunity. For this reason, even healthy children and adults could be susceptible to illness, larger numbers of people could get sick and the symptoms could be more severe, even fatal. There have been several influenza pandemics in the 20th century: between 1918 and 1919, 1957 and 1958 and 1968 and 1969. Health experts predict that there eventually will be another influenza pandemic, which may be caused by the bird flu or another flu virus. Health authorities believe that advance preparation will help minimize the severe consequences.

What are the health authorities doing to protect us?
Health experts from the World Health Organization and individual countries have been intensively preparing for pandemic influenza. Cases of bird flu are being closely tracked, infected bird flocks are being destroyed and infected people are being promptly treated and quarantined to prevent the spread to others. The United States has banned the importation of birds and bird products from countries with bird flu. Scientists are following the strains of bird flu to detect any mutations that could cause an influenza pandemic.

New vaccines are being developed to try to prevent bird flu. Although the virus has become resistant to two antiviral medicines, there are still two other medicines that are thought to be effective. These treatments are being stockpiled nationally to ensure that sufficient medicine will be available. In addition, new treatments are being developed. Local governments, health agencies, businesses and communities are developing plans to respond to an influenza pandemic, including how to distribute vaccines, identify and treat sick people and temporarily close schools and businesses to limit the spread of the illness.

What steps can we take to protect our family?
  • Follow good hygiene. Be sure everyone in the family washes their hands frequently with soap and water. Keep alcohol-based hand sanitizer on-hand. Avoid other people who are sick. And if you’re sick, stay home from work and school, and cough and sneeze into your elbow to prevent spreading germs through the air and your hands.
  • Eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of fluids and get enough rest. These are key practices for staying healthy. It is still safe to eat poultry if you prepare and cook it properly. Wash your hands before and after handling poultry. Clean your hands, utensils and cutting boards that have touched raw poultry. And cook poultry thoroughly until the juices run clear and the meat reaches an inner temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This kills the germs, including possible bird flu virus.
  • Get the yearly flu vaccine. Designed against the current circulating strains of influenza, it can keep you and your children healthier. The current 2005-2006 vaccine does not protect against the bird flu strain, but a bird flu vaccine is being developed.
  • Instruct your children to stay away from wild birds and animals. It’s safer to observe wildlife from a distance. Never touch wild birds or animals, especially dead ones, since they could carry germs. In areas with bird flu, housecats have also become sick from infected birds, so they should be kept indoors in these areas.
  • Continue to get good medical care. Make sure you and your children continue to visit your doctor for checkups and immunizations. If you develop symptoms of illness, call your doctor and follow the recommended treatment.
  • Follow public health instructions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control developed a Pandemic Flu Planning Checklist for Individuals and Families at http://www.pandemicflu.gov/planguide/checklist.html. They recommend keeping a several-day emergency supply of water, food, regular medications, diapers and other essentials at home. They also recommend planning with your family and community for responding to the flu and other disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. Health authorities do not recommend keeping a personal supply of prescription flu medicine at home.
For more information, visit www.avianflu.gov and www.pandemicflu.gov.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician