Over the weekend, the government told Americans to start storing canned foods and powdered milk under their beds as the prospect of a deadly bird flu outbreak approaches the United States. The fear is that the bird flu will turn into a pandemic and drastically alter the course of American life for a time.
The Red Cross says that if there's a pandemic, we need to prepare for 10 days of being stuck in our homes, and that we may be without power and water during that time. In the event of a bird flu pandemic, Americans should plan for interruptions or delays in other services: Banks might close, hospitals could be overwhelmed, and postal service could be spotty. Experts also say that people need to begin stocking up on extra food and supplies like protective masks, flashlights, portable radios, batteries and matches.
"When you go to the store and buy three cans of tuna fish, buy a fourth and put it under the bed. When you go to the store to buy some milk, pick up a box of powdered milk, put it under the bed," said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. "When you do that for a period of four to six months, you are going to have a couple of weeks of food. And that's what we're talking about."
Previous pandemics occurred in 1918, 1957 and 1968, and the worst waves of illness seem to pass through communities in a matter of six weeks to eight weeks. Computer models suggest about 30 percent of people could be infected, but not all at the same time.
In the event of a pandemic, people must practice what the health officials call "social distancing," or keeping away from other people's germs. Schools and day-care centers could be closed, sporting events and other large gatherings could be canceled, and shaking hands could become socially unacceptable, at least for a while.
Darlene Washington, the director of disease prevention education at the American Red Cross, came to "Good Morning America" to go over some of the must-haves in the event of a bird flu pandemic.
"We recommend that each member of your family has a gallon of water for each day, so a family of four needs to have 40 gallons of water available and you need that much water stored because there's a chance that your water will get cut off if there's a pandemic," Washington said. "Workers may not be able to make it, and plants may stop operating. Your family will need to drink water and for hygiene, for brushing their teeth and washing their hands."
"You need foods that will not spoil," Washington said. "So you need canned foods like tuna. You also need to get foods that you don't have to heat, because just like your water, your powers may go out, too. In addition, to things like canned tuna, you should start storing peanut butter, protein, bars, crackers. Again, foods that have a long shelf life and that don't need to be heated. Make sure you have enough formula and baby food to get through that 10 days. You have to plan for every member of your family and that includes your pets. So get extra dog food or cat food, and make sure you have extra water for your pets. You need a 10-day supply for everyone."
"Stores are going to run out of what you need, too," Washington said. "So that's why you need to stock up now. And we encourage families to have supplies on hand like flashlights and batteries, matches. Hand-cranked or battery-operated radios, and a manual can opener, because you are going to need to open all those cans of food. And this may not seem important but you must get activities for your children and yourself, games, coloring books, cards."
"You have to have all those on hand to keep your home clean and to have receptacles for all your trash," she said. "You probably won't have trash service and you need to account for that. You need to make sure to have paper towels, toilet paper and soap. Everything you need to keep your home clean and practice good hygiene."
"You need to get an additional 10 days of all your prescription medications," Washington said. "You should also have over-the-counter, fever-reducing medications; medications for upset stomach; and cold and flu medication. You'll also want to have fluids like Gatorade and Pedialite, which have electrolytes and will help a family member rehydrate if they get sick. Also, keep a few thermometers around in case someone gets sick."
If a Family Member Gets Sick …
"The first thing is to strengthen your hand washing and to have the infected family member cover his mouth when he coughs," she said. "You should also keep that person isolated in a certain part of the house and identify a family member who will help him. You may have to take turns."