Bird Flu Alarm

2006-03-22-Bird flu predicted to cross state

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-03-22-Bird flu predicted to cross state

Michigan's spot on a major migratory bird route puts it in the path of the much-feared bird flu's slow spread from Asia, making it likely to get to the state before many other parts of the United States, experts say.

According to scientists, it is likely that bird flu -- one strain of which the World Health Organization has blamed for 103 deaths and the death or slaughter of millions of birds -- will spread from Asia to Alaska as early as next month, as birds migrate around the Pacific.

From there, it could spread to ducks, geese and swans that take a continent-long route that sweeps south from Alaska and then swings across the nation's midsection.

Over Michigan.

Still, just because the bird flu is heading our way this fall, that doesn't mean people should panic, said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"Do not assume that just because there is a flyway over your house that you are in the direct line of fire," he said Tuesday. A flyway is a migration route for birds.

Worldwide, human deaths from bird flu are relatively rare.

But there are some worries that one strain of bird flu -- the H5N1 virus that has been killing large numbers of birds in Asia and, more recently, in Europe and Africa -- could mutate into a pandemic flu that could kill millions of people worldwide.

But that key mutation may never take place.

Still, in preparation for the bird flu's arrival, officials at the Michigan State University Extension and the state Department of Agriculture are planning a series of training sessions this spring and summer for the many Michiganders -- including hundreds in the rural outer reaches of the metro area -- who keep chicken coops or feed the ducks at ponds or lakes in their backyards.

Tom Purves, an excavation contractor from Clarkston, keeps a few chickens in his backyard.

On Tuesday, he took time off to hear a speech by University of Michigan flu expert Arnold Monto.

"Everybody's talking about it," Purves said. "If it comes, if it's a disease that's threatening, I'm getting rid of the birds."

Expert advice

MSU officials are warning people to pay particular attention to swans. They seem to be the bird species that's most likely to die from the bird flu.

In addition, U-M's Monto spoke to a group of nurses and female executives to help them prepare for a possible pandemic. One suggestion he stressed was that everyone should get a flu shot this fall.

There is no vaccine for bird flu.

In a normal winter, the flu kills about 36,000 Americans, mostly elderly people and the very young. During a flu pandemic, however, when a particularly deadly version of the flu virus develops, many more can die.

During the 1918 flu pandemic -- the worst in the nation's history -- about 500,000 Americans died.

In that year, the flu seemed to be most fatal to people between the ages of 25 and 40. Scientists say they don't know why.

Of the 200 reported human cases of bird flu in Asia and Europe, 103 have been fatal. Most of those infected so far have had close contact with infected poultry.

Monto has been talking about the possibility of a flu pandemic to other groups as well, including Domino's Pizza executives, a few days ago.

Isolated responses

Carryout food orders zoomed up in Asian cities a few years ago, when a deadly disease called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome seemed to be spreading rapidly. People didn't want to go out for fear of putting themselves in contact with large numbers of other people.

For the same reason, Monto said, sales of cars shot up in Beijing even faster than before because residents didn't want to ride the bus.

After his speech Tuesday, a woman worried about the retail industry asked Monto how, in the face of a pandemic scare, she could encourage people to continue to shop in malls like the one where she works.

"There's nothing you can do," he said. "People are already shopping on eBay."

Monto's speeches and the planned extension service workshops for bird hobbyists are all part of an orderly scramble to get ready for a potential public health disaster. Experts say everyone should be doing their part.

Individuals may want to stock up on bottled water and canned food so they don't have to go out often.

Business supervisors should make plans to have as many people as possible work from home if a flu pandemic materializes.

Larger numbers of birds fly from Alaska to Washington state, for example, via the Pacific Flyway or North Dakota via the Central Flyway.

And even when the bird flu arrives here, health officials are hoping that the virus still will not be able to transfer easily from person to person.

That's the key change that would be needed to turn the H5N1 virus that has been killing large numbers of birds in Asia -- and, more recently in Europe and northern Africa -- into a pandemic flu that could kill millions people worldwide.

And that key mutation -- the one that would make the virus transmissible among humans -- may never take place. But health officials and wildlife bird specialists are getting ready, just the same.

"Many of us feel that if it's not H5N1, it'll be something else because we're long overdue" for a flu pandemic, Monto said.

"Starting next fall, if a hobbyist or a landowner finds a bird die-off, please alert either Michigan DNR or a local public health agency as soon as possible," said Throckmorton of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "And, as always, don't touch dead birds."

Understanding Avian Influenza