How Will Bird Flu Change Your Life?

We've all heard the doomsday scenarios of what could happen if an avian flu pandemic takes a grip on the United States: millions dead, millions more sick, basic utilities and services unavailable, hospitals overrun and unable to cope, communities reduced to devastation like something out of Stephen King's "The Stand."

What's known is human-to-human transmission of bird flu is inevitable as H5N1, a type of bird-flu virus, mutates. "It's going to happen," said Dr. Joseph Agris, a Houston physician. "It's no question. It's just a question of when."

But what will actually occur in your life if there is a pandemic? Will you go to work? Will your kids stay home from school? How will your community services work if employees are sick? Is your local hospital prepared to deal with the influx of people who fall ill?

First of all, the virus may not be as intense in human cases in the United States as it has been elsewhere in the world because the flu in general tends to weaken as it reaches North America, said Agris, CEO of the Agris-Zindler Children's Foundation, which makes medical trips around the world to care for children.

"Right now what I'm seeing seems scary," he said, "but I think it's going to be less of a problem by the time it gets here than what is anticipated."

That doesn't mean, however, that an outbreak would be easy. "Even if you take the smallest number possible -- 1 percent of the sickest portion of the U.S. population getting the disease -- that's a million and a half people who'll either get sick or die," he added.

Even facing this threat, it is important to keep a sense of control, said David Ropeik, who teaches risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health and who co-wrote "Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You."

"The risk you can't do anything about feels scarier than the one you can," Ropeik said. "Washing your hands a lot, sneezing into your elbow, knowing that avoiding crowded places if there's a flu epidemic of any kind, those are applicable. ... They're emotionally reassuring in the face of some new threat. New threats are always scarier than ones we've lived with for a while. It's just their newness."

Getting Things Ready at Home

Best-case scenario: People abide by imposed quarantines, work from home if possible and ride out the course of the virus with minimal health problems.

Worst-case scenario: People are forced to stay home but fail to stock the necessary food and supplies and venture back out, catching bird flu and infecting their families.

According to health experts, there are basic steps that everyone should take to stay healthy, and they are the same as what you'd do to avoid any flu: Wash your hands often, don't shake hands with others, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, avoid crowds.

At the same time, you should stock up on essential items in case you get stuck at home for extended periods because of your own illness or quarantines.

"I think every person should have a little stockpile of food and water, a little bit like the air-raid shelters in the Cold War," said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "The No. 1 strategy in protecting yourself from avian flu is to minimize contact with others."

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