Turkey Farm Prepares For Thanksgiving
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Is it OK to eat turkey this Thanksgiving?
By Jane Weaver Health editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/18/2005 9:21:09 AM ET 2005-10-18T13:21:09

As the U.S. heads into the regular influenza season, Americans are already anxious about the spread of the bird flu virus.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been handling numerous fearful phone calls from the public and the media, fielding such questions as "Is it safe to have a bird feeder in my yard?" and "Is it still OK to have turkey at Thanksgiving?"

“It’s been insane,” said Dave Daigle, a spokesman for the CDC, which has been getting an average of 447,000 hits a day on its avian flu information Web page.

That’s more than the CDC got from people wanting to know about the flu shot shortage last October or the West Nile virus outbreaks in 2003.

While strains of the deadly H5N1 virus have been identified in poultry in eastern Europe, no signs of the virus have been found in the U.S.

"For us in this country, it’s still a theoretical risk," says Dr. Brian Currie, vice president and senior medical director of New York's Montefiore Medical Center.

In the last several weeks there has been heightened attention on the bird flu virus and how the U.S. government plans to cope with a possible global pandemic. Currently the highly lethal H5N1 strain of the virus almost never passes between people, but scientists believe that the virus, which has infected 117 and killed over 60 people in Asia, will eventually mutate into a form that would spread easily among humans.

"Nobody really knows what the risk is," says Dr. Richard Webby of the Department of Infectious Diseases, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. "Are we on the verge of a huge pandemic? We don’t know."

A bird flu vaccine developed in St. Jude's research lab is currently undergoing initial tests in people, but likely wouldn't be available for years.

In response, the U.S. government and other countries have started stockpiling the antiviral medication Tamiflu and other medicines that scientists believe might be effective against a pandemic virus.

Get the flu vaccine
But what should the average, nervous American worried about bird flu do?

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"Short of obtaining [antiviral] drugs, there’s not really much we can do to prepare," says Webby. "My expectation is that [bird flu] would spread within community, like a normal human flu. The transmission of that virus, the mechanism, would be similar, so normal precautions would be the same."

That means regular hand washing and staying home if you feel ill. Beyond that, about all someone can do is to get vaccinated for the regular flu.

The vaccine for the upcoming flu season wouldn't offer protection against bird flu. But protecting people against conventional flu could make them stronger against a new illness, some health experts say.

"It would be good to have more people vaccinated against the human flu," says Webby, although he cautions that vaccinations against normal flu won't eliminate the chance that bird flu could get into the population eventually.

"If you vaccinate more people against flu, you reduce the risk of recombination" where different viruses are mixed together, says Currie. A recombination or reassortment of two different flu viruses was behind the influenza pandemics of 1957 and 1968. Scientists say there is a possibility of that happening with the bird flu virus, although there's no guarantee.

In fact, right now many doctors in the U.S. are more worried about the start of the regular flu season.

Every year, about 30,000 mostly elderly Americans die from influenza, but only about 65 percent of people considered at high risk of serious illness or death from regular flu get vaccinated.

"The chances are we're not going to have a bird flu epidemic this year -- there haven’t been the kinds of findings out there that suggest we’re in imminent danger of it," says Dr. Neil Schachter, medical director, Respiratory Care department at New York's Mt. Sinai Medical Center.

On the other hand, "there definitely will be a [regular] flu season, just like every year we have Halloween and Christmas, we will have a flu season," he says  "Unfortunately, it’s not always taken as seriously as it should be."

A year after contamination at a major vaccine manufacturer caused a temporary, severe national shortage, it's unclear whether supplies will be sufficient this year, especially if heightened anxiety over bird flu leads to a rush for shots, say doctors.

While the new flu season hasn't really started yet, fortunately the new flu vaccine seems to be effective against the human strains that are circulating this year.

"The new flu vaccine seems to be a good match," says Montefiore Medical Center's Currie.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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