So I thought I would do my best to spread the word about what bird flu is and what we can do if it spreads.
First of all, presently people are getting bird flu only from infected birds, mostly in Asia with only a couple of reported cases in Europe--Romania and Turkey. When cases are discovered, the local domestic fowl and pet birds are killed to help contain the spread. So far that's working. It is a vicious flu, killing about one half of those who do contract it. In Asia a lot of people keep chickens in small quarters, which is why so many outbreaks are happening there. They are living with and tending the chickens, thus they come into contact with the virus through touch.
What the experts are worrying about is the possibility that the virus will mutate into a form that can be transmitted from one human to another. Think about it--a chicken won't hop aboard a plane from Asia to America--but a human could. We are contagious while we are still incubating a flu virus. So imagine that the virus has mutated, and an American tourist comes into contact with a surface that an infected Asian resident has just touched. Say a telephone. Then the American rubs his eye. The virus passes into his body at that point and takes up residence, multiplying. He doesn't feel it yet but he's sick. He gets on the plane to return home where he gives it to 5 people en route, and a few co-workers the following Monday. A few days later he's out sick and is rushed to the hospital when his symptoms and fever are so severe his wife is worried. We have our first outbreak of bird flu in America. Those other people he infected will have, in turn, infected others. Before we know it we'll have a pretty good sized outbreak and you'll be seeing it on the news. Perhaps some of the people he infected will also travel, and that's how it will jump from city to city.
At some point this flu is likely to change in this manner but it may not be this year or even next year. Such things are not really predictable. The scientists can only watch and wait, testing each new outbreak, studying the Spanish Flu of 1918 which is similar in make up to this virus, and work on a vaccine with the virus we presently have. It may yield some protection if the virus doesn't change too dramatically.
If or when we have an outbreak, the safest place for a person living in that area who is not yet infected to go is home. It will not help to go running madly from the city coming into contact with potentially infected people, or going to work, or getting on a bus or subway, or serving food in a crowded restaurant, or any other activity involving masses of people. Children should stay home from schools in any area with an outbreak, parents should stay home from work, and if the national guard is called in they are to go door to door and see if you need anything, bring you food and water if necessary, and generally keep order. If you are sick at home they can get you to the hospital. They are not to be feared or dreaded. They will be there to help.
In the meantime, we should do what we ought to do in any case--have an emergency kit with food and water at home, at work, and in our car, wash our hands frequently, get out of the habit of rubbing our eyes or touching our face unless we've just washed our hands, and using the alcohol based sanitizing lotions frequently at work. While you're at it, by a bottle or two for your children's classrooms and ask the teacher to have them use it. It can't hurt to get the current flu shot--sometimes a flu shot for one flu virus helps one have a milder case of another flu. If you are afraid of needles there are some clinics offering the vaccine in a nasal spray form. In fact, awareness of flu is very high with all this bird flu talk, and many people are getting vaccinated this year, so we may have a milder flu season!
Much mention has been made of hoarding Tamiflu. The irony is that it wasn't shown to help very much with recovery from this type of flu. Tamiflu isn't a vaccine, it's one of two medicines that can often help one get over the flu faster. Relenza is the other drug used in this way. I haven't read anything so far about it being tested, though I imagine someone is working on that.
Politicians in this post Katrina era are falling all over themselves trying to look like they take bird flu seriously. Certainly we should have a plan and infrastructure in place for either bird flu or some other pandemic. One will come eventually. But panic isn't going to help anybody.