Bird Flu: Is It Headed Our Way?

updated 10/31/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Q: What is avian flu?
A: Avian flu is a virus carried by birds and spread through their feces and other secretions. It has been passed to humans and, since the current outbreak began in 2003, 117 people have become infected, and 60 have died.

Q: Why is it getting so much attention now?
A: While it was initially confined to poultry in Asia, birds in Turkey and Romania were recently found infected with the virus, bringing the number of affected countries to 14, with others being investigated. About 150 million infected birds have died or been killed to prevent the virus from spreading.

Q: Should Americans fear an outbreak here?
A: Not right now. "There is no sign of it here, absolutely none," says Dr. Bill Schaffner, head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The virus isn't easily transmitted from birds to humans or between people. "At the moment," Schaffner says, "it is a problem for the birds."

Q: Then why are public health officials worried?
A: Because the mutating virus is "getting closer to one that could be readily transmitted between people" and trigger a global outbreak, or pandemic, says Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Minnesota-based Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy.

Q: Who is most at risk?
A: People who come into contact with infected birds. Of the people who have been infected, many are from families that keep chickens around their homes. Researchers suspect that in a handful of cases the virus was transmitted directly from family member to family member.

Q: Do humans have any immunity to the avian flu?
A: No. "That's what has us nervous," says Schaffner. "It's a completely new virus, and basically the whole population is susceptible. That's what causes a pandemic."

Q: Is there a vaccine?
A: Not yet. A trial vaccine is being developed, but the virus is constantly changing. As a result Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, has cautioned that, in the event of a bird-flu pandemic, "we will need to make a vaccine to that [specific strain of the] virus, so it's really not possible to stock-pile a vaccine in large quantities in advance."

Q: Are there easily recognizable symptoms?
A: Symptoms of the avian flu are pretty much like common-flu woes: fever, aches, pains, chills and sore throat, as well as diarrhea, respiratory disease and pneumonia. As with common flu, drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza may help relieve symptoms.

Q: Are there any precautions people can take?
A: Wash your hands, and cover your mouth when you cough. "It's a matter of lathering up and doing a thorough job," says Schaffner, "not doodly-doodly rinsing hands with water." And get a flu shot, as long as your doctor recommends it.

Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis.

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