WASHINGTON – Wary of public panic if bird flu reaches U.S. shores, Bush administration officials Monday sought to explain to Americans -- and the media -- what infected birds do and do not mean.
Top officials responsible for responding to a bird flu outbreak said they fully expect migratory birds carrying the H5N1 virus to arrive on U.S. soil. They are focusing on flyways used by birds that winter in South Asia but spend springs and summers in Alaska.
Experts expect infected wild birds to reach the U.S. “possibly as early as this year,” said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Norton said that between 20 and 100 preliminary positive tests indicating H5N1 infection could be seen by the end of the year.
Preserving Public Confidence
But officials are also keenly aware of how easily health scares can damage public confidence. Fears over a 2003 SARS outbreak devastated Asian and Canadian tourist and hospitality industries when millions of would-be travelers refused to visit.
One of the key ways migratory birds are thought to have spread H5N1 is by mixing with domestic livestock. So far bird flu has sickened at least 177 people and killed at least 98, according to the World Health Organization.
U.S.officials are trying hard to head off any potential boycott of the $29 billion-per-year American poultry industry when migratory birds finally are detected on domestic soil.
On Monday officials resorted to basic public relations methods to drive their message home. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns repeated a version of a single statement no less than half a dozen times while speaking to reporters.
“A detection of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in birds does not signal the start of a pandemic in people,” he said.
But officials’ concerns over public perception may be well-placed. Public health preparations that include stockpiling of drugs and vaccines are still years from completion. And while wild bird migrations can’t be controlled, public fear -- at least at first -- is likely to pose a larger threat than does the flu virus.
Bird Flu Facts
On Monday officials stressed several key facts: first, most American chickens and turkeys live in factory farm enclosures that completely isolate them from wild birds. Second, plans are in place to kill or vaccinate domestic flocks should infected birds be found. Third, properly cooking poultry completely kills H5N1 viruses. Fourth, the virus still has not shown the ability to efficiently pass between people, a necessary ingredient for a human epidemic.
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt is in the middle of a months-long national tour evaluating state and local pandemic flu readiness plans. He has called on individuals and local authorities to prepare, noting that the federal government will never be able to operate in thousands of communities at once if a pandemic does break out.
Leavitt has sounded many of the same public messages as Norton and Johanns. But he also expressed a sobering note: “No one in the world is well prepared for a pandemic.”
By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Gale A. Norton, Secretary of the Interior. Mike Johanns, Secretary of Agriculture. Michael O. Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services. World Health Organization.