With the news that a 19-year-old woman died of bird flu in China, it's time to think of how best to be safe, even if this latest case of the virus doesn't spark the long-feared global pandemic.
"We shouldn't be complacent," says Kathy Neuzil, an infectious-disease expert who specializes in flu through her work with the PATH global initiative and as a member of the pandemic flu task force for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. While there haven't been many human cases in the past two years, Neuzil says, the H5N1 flu strain has killed 248 people since it first appeared in 2003 and has decimated wild and domestic birds worldwide. (I've been covering bird flu from the beginning, and though I rarely get rattled by scary bugs, this one gives me the willies.)
Most of the people who died had contact with chickens and other poultry, but a few cases in which the virus spread among family members have raised fears that this bad bug could eventually mutate to the point that it could easily spread among humans, just as the annual winter flu does. And most of the people who died have been healthy children and young adults, which is terrifyingly similar to the killer 1918 flu pandemic.
So, anyone traveling to China or Indonesia should steer clear of farms and live-animal markets, Neuzil says. "For most casual tourists, this is not a major threat." So far, the bird flu outbreaks have been localized, flaring up and then subsiding. Let's hope things stay that way. The World Health Organization's avian influenza site is the place to go for the latest on outbreaks, and Neuzil recommends checking out the situation before you travel.
And what about those of us whose travel plans don't extend much farther than the local mall? "The threat of seasonal influenza is much greater," Neuzil says. "It's a good reminder to get an influenza vaccination."
In the past few years, public health officials worldwide have made huge progress in tracking bird flu outbreaks and getting ready to produce vaccine and quarantine people if there is a pandemic. If bird flu does raise its head in the United States, the go-to source on what to do will be the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's avian flu website.
The bottom line: no need to stockpile the antiviral drug Tamiflu or stay home from school. But it's a good time to pay attention to the bird flu news, because the threat it poses has not gone away.