There have been many stories in the media about bird flu. The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has been identified in birds across Europe and Asia. Millions of birds and at least 60 people have died. Though there have been no reports of it in the United States, Americans are concerned - perhaps too concerned.
Bird flu has been the focus of a great deal of media attention lately and some health experts are warning of a potential global pandemic. But bird flu is not a recent phenomenon nor is it unknown in the United States. There was an outbreak just last year in Texas that was successfully eradicated with no serious problems. Before that, outbreaks in 1924 and 1983 led to the destruction of millions of birds.
According to Dr. Ron De, the administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, this bird flu is attracting more attention because it may be more dangerous.
"This virus that's circulating in Asia is categorized as an H5N1 virus. That particular virus is unique in that while the primary host - the primary animal infected - is commercial birds it does have the ability to infect and cause the disease in people."
Bird flu is spreading through migratory birds. But at the moment bird flu can only be transmitted to humans through direct contact with a bird's feces or respiratory secretions. There has been concern people could get bird flu from eating chicken.
Dr. DeHaven says that there is no danger in eating poultry or poultry products as long as the food is cooked properly. "Eggs and meat for that matter - so if you're eating the meat from infected birds typically it's not really a concern because this virus is once that is readily inactivated by any kind of heat. So if you have meat from an infected bird or an egg from an infected bird and you cook it properly it represents really no risk to human health."
Some people are also worried that they can get bird flu just from touching poultry. That is not true if the birds are healthy - although as a general rule, it's always a good idea to wash hands after touching raw poultry.
Another outbreak of common bird flu in the U.S. is likely according to Dr. DeHaven, but he says the country will be ready for the virus. "We think we've got good surveillance in place. We're testing a lot of birds - actually over a million a year. So we'll find the infection very quickly if it finds its way into commercial poultry."
Most commercial U.S. poultry is also raised indoors - avoiding contact with migratory birds and reducing the risk of the virulent H5N1 virus spreading to commercial poultry. The U.S. has also stockpiled millions of doses of a bird vaccine in case of an outbreak.
Meanwhile, according to AP, the federal government said yesterday it has awarded a $62-million contract to Chiron Corp. to manufacture a bird flu vaccine, and the Senate moved to invest far more - $8 billion - on preparations in case the flu strain sparks a worldwide epidemic.
At the same time, Swiss company Roche Holding AG said demand for its Tamiflu antiviral treatment is so extreme that it has stopped shipping it to private U.S. suppliers to thwart hoarding.
Tamiflu, a prescription drug used to treat regular flu, is thought to be effective in humans against the current strain of bird flu, which has killed more than 60 people in the past two years.
This winter's flu season has barely started and prescriptions for Tamiflu last week were nearly quadruple what they were a year earlier, according to Verispan, a Pennsylvania-based company that monitors pharmacy sales.
"The priority is that there is enough Tamiflu for the people who need it at the start of the influenza season," said Roche spokesman Alexander Klauser. No flu is now circulating, he said.
The American Medical Association opposes personal stockpiling and says the misuse of Tamiflu could lead to drug-resistant flu strains.
Meanwhile, the $62-million Chiron deal is the second contract for bird flu vaccine awarded by the government. Sanofi-Aventis has a $100-million contract to produce anti-bird flu shots.
The Senate's out-of-budget expenditure would increase stockpiles of Tamiflu, another antiviral, Relenza and vaccine, and boost emergency preparations at state and local levels.