Health Care

Fast-Moving Avian Flu Reaches France

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The dangerous H5N1 strain of bird flu is spreading faster than experts expected. French officials confirmed the virus Saturday in domestic fowl, as well as wild birds. How worried should we be?


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Today, French officials confirmed the dangerous H5N1 strain of bird flu has infected domestic foul in eastern France. Japan suspended all French poultry import. This Asian bird flu virus is spreading faster than expected. It's popped up in wild birds or domestic poultry in Nigeria, Egypt, in India, Italy, France and Germany, and in other countries. Experts predict the march will continue.

NPR's Richard Knox tried to find out just how worried we should be, and he filed this report.

RICHARD KNOX reporting:

Michael Purdue is a flu expert at the World Health Organization in Geneva. He's worried that the bird flu virus will change as it spreads, touching off a disastrous global flu pandemic in people. He says that risk is higher than it was a few months ago.

Dr. MICHAEL PURDUE (Scientist, World Health Organization): As you go into new human populations, you have to almost logically increase your chances. If we believe that this virus has the capability of becoming a pandemic for us, then the more different populations and different environments you introduce it in, the more likely it is that that might happen.

KNOX: But how high is the risk and how fast will it go up, as the bird virus spreads.

Dr. PURDUE: If you go a scale of one to ten, and one is there's no chance of a pandemic, and ten is a pandemic, it is difficult to say where we are in that scale. Most people would think maybe we're midway, around four or five. But then the next question is how long does it take to get to number six?

KNOX: The answer is no one knows. In fact, your guess is about as good as the experts. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health this week provided a snapshot of how worried ordinary Americans are about a flu pandemic. Almost 60 percent say they are. But Robert Blendon of Harvard says most people aren't alarmed.

Dr. ROBERT BLENDON (Professor of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health): Because they're concerned about the ultimate spread, they don't expect that we're going to see widespread cases, either in humans or in poultry, at least in the immediate future.

KNOX: Fewer than one in three Americans expects to see bird flu in wild American birds in the next 12 months. Many experts would put that risk higher. When it comes to an actual pandemic, only one in seven Americans thinks it'll happen within a year. If an when a flu pandemic hits, Americans say they'll be willing to wait in line, after doctors and policemen, for the scarce anti-viral drug Tamiflu.

But Blendon doubts that Americans really understand what health experts know, there simply wouldn't be enough medical resources, things like hospital beds and mechanical ventilators to help patients breathe, in even a moderately severe pandemic.

Dr. BLENDON: For most Americans at this stage it's hard for them to understand in a country so rich in medical resources how we would not have enough in an emergency.

KNOX: Just how bad things could be is beginning to sink in among some Americans. For instance, several high-leveled business executives recently paid $1800 apiece to attend a two-day meeting on pandemic flu in Minneapolis. An instant poll of that group revealed a gloomy outlook. Nearly 60 percent thought a pandemic would come in the next two years. Eighty-five percent of these business leaders expect their employees may not show up during a pandemic.

Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota organized the meeting. He says the outlook is dire.

Dr. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM (Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, Professor, University of Minnesota's School of Public Health): If a large number of citizens don't go to work, we will guarantee the collapse of the just-in-time delivery system to so many critical services of goods here in this country.

KNOX: Including hospitals, power companies, grocery stores, trucking companies. Some businesses are planning to let workers telecommute, working from home by computer, if the internet doesn't collapse under the load.

Dr. OSTERHOLM: That'll only work for a limited number of industries. If you're in manufacturing and retail, if you're a prison guard, if you're a health care worker, if you're someone who stocks grocery shelves, you can't do that by telecommuting. You can't get a computer to plow the roads.

KNOX: But Osterholm's immediate worry is what happens in the coming months if the bird flu virus spreads, maybe to North America, but doesn't immediately cause human cases.

Dr. OSTERHOLM: When it doesn't cause very many illnesses, and even fewer deaths over the next six to 12 months, people say, well, this isn't so bad at all.

KNOX: If people let their guard down, Osterholm says, they don't understand flu viruses.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: If you still have questions about avian flu, find answers at our website,

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