What Is Bird Flu, And Should I Be Doing Anything About It?

Question: What is bird flu, and should I be doing anything about it?

Answer: Bird flu is, as the name suggests, influenza among birds -- and particularly among poultry: chickens, geese, etc. And also it can get into wild birds and be transmitted over long distances because the birds fly long distance when they migrate. Bird flu is important to us kind of intellectually because brand new strains of influenza evolve. They undergo genetic changes and they start in birds and then get into humans. And so those of us who are influenza experts watch what's going on as regards bird influenza -- bird flu -- very, very carefully. Has the virus changed? Is it now more comfortable in humans? Will it spread? Will there be a new strain?

As far as you and me on a daily basis, we don't really have to worry about bird flu. Stay alert, read the newspapers. You needn't be concerned. You cannot get bird flu from eating chicken, for example, that's something you needn't be concerned about.

I think we should be more concerned about annual influenza, not the bird flu but the regular flu, that goes from person to person. Because each and every year, we're going to experience over 200,000 hospitalizations in the United States and 36,000 deaths that occur because of influenza. And we can protect ourselves and those around us by being vaccinated. Bird flu in people has not yet occurred in the United States, Canada, Mexico, or South America. So it's remote. We don't need to worry about that too much. But annual influenza, that's serious, it will come each and every winter. That's the one we should all get vaccinated against.

Next: Why Am I More Likely To Get A Cold In The Winter?

William Schaffner, M.D., Chair, Department of Preventative Medicine, Vanderbilt Medical School

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