Avian Flu Virus and the Upcoming Flu Season

Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, an assistant dean at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, discusses avian flu and the approaching flu season.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

There are few things more personal or more practical than staying in good health. To that end, we've added a medical expert to the NEWS & NOTES team. Dr. Hilda Hutcherson is an assistant dean at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. Dr. Hutcherson spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya about what we've been hearing a lot about in the news lately, and that's the bird flu. And Farai's here to fill us in on that conversation. Welcome Farai.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Thanks, Ed.

GORDON: So we've been hearing a lot about this virus in the news lately. Tell us a little bit about what it is.

CHIDEYA: Well, it turns out that birds can get the flu just like humans, and in this case there's a situation where birds, first of all in Asia, then in Russia, now in Europe, are dying. Those are both farm-raised birds and wild birds. And sometimes they pass it onto humans, so scientists are worried that there could be a mutation of the bird flu that could be dangerous to humans. And here's what Dr. Hutcherson had to say about the possibilities of catching it.

Dr. HILDA HUTCHERSON (Assistant Dean, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City): The first thing that you have to realize is that the transmission from birds to humans is rare. In the last two years, there have been a little over 100 cases in humans of this virus being transferred from birds and fowl to humans. So it doesn't happen very frequently. And the human-to-human transmission is even more rare.

Now looking at those 100 or so cases that have been transmitted to humans, more than half of those people have died, so this is a very virulent and dangerous strain of flu.

CHIDEYA: What about this risk of mutations that people are talking about? That this could become a super flu that passes from human to human? How will we...

Dr. HUTCHERSON: Well, certainly...

CHIDEYA: ...keep track of it?

Dr. HUTCHERSON: ...there is a risk that this virus will mutate and then be easily transferred from birds and fowl to humans, and then from humans to humans. It's a theoretical risk. It hasn't happened yet, but it is something that we have to be aware of and prepared for, although I don't think that the time has arrived yet for people to become anxious and overly concerned about it.

CHIDEYA: So what do we do with all of this free-floating panic then if it's not something that we should be too worried about?

Dr. HUTCHERSON: Well, I think people have to look at the data and realize that the risk right now is low. Certainly, you've got to make sure that you are prepared for any type of outbreak of flu. Personally, I think that people should be more concerned right now about the normal human flu that we have to deal with every flu season. And flu season starts in November and goes until March and peaks in February. So right now, I think that people should be preparing themselves by getting themselves as healthy as they possibly can. Exercising every single day, 30 minutes to 60 minutes. Taking their vitamins. Eating well. Getting lots of rest. Decreasing stress in your life. Those are the kinds of issues that we should be making sure that we're taking care of. Making ourselves as healthy as we possibly can, so that if this flu does arrive our immune system is as strong as possible.

CHIDEYA: Now the advice you gave about immune systems are good for the human flu and the bird flu--what about the flu shots, though, that people have for the regular kinds of flu that affects humans? Does it eliminate your chance of getting the flu, or just lessen it?

Dr. HUTCHERSON: Well, right now, the flu virus that is available is to decrease the chances that you will get a severe form of the human flu. It has no protection whatsoever against the avian bird flu. And what it does is it decreases your risk of getting the normal human flu and, if you do get the flu, you will have quite possibly a milder course of the flu. So it's a good idea for everyone to get the flu shot, but certainly if you are a child, if you're pregnant, if you're over 65, if you have chronic medical problems, it is the utmost importance for you to get the flu shot now or in November.

CHIDEYA: Words to the wise from Dr. Hilda Hutcherson. She's the associate dean for diversity and minority affairs at the Columbia College for Physicians and Surgeons. She's also the author of books, including, "What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex." Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. HUTCHERSON: Thank you.

GORDON: All right, Farai, let me ask you this. I've got to tell the truth. I have never in my life had a flu shot. What about you?

CHIDEYA: Oh, I have. And I'm going to line up and get it again because I just--I don't like being sick. And even though I live in California, you can still get the flu in the winter in California, too. And as to what Dr. Hutcherson said about taking better care of yourself, I'm trying.

GORDON: All right. Well, that's good to know and I guess I'll stay away from you as to not infect you with my flu. Thanks, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Ed.

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