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December 10, 2022

Eyes Wide Open: Looking at Avian Flu

Some say it’s starting to feel like the big “IF.” If H5N1 avian – or bird-flu mutates to a human-to-human strain, it could spell worldwide pandemic … and panic.

But it’s keeping experts guessing and on their toes trying to track its course. It started in Asia and is now in Europe and Africa. Will it come here? What should we do? We called State Epidemiologist Alan Craig and received the following answers to our questions.

Question: The U.S. Government is currently working in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make a vaccine for the avian flu. Can you tell us more about that?

Answer: The federal government has committed millions of dollars to influenza vaccine development. Vaccine manufacturers are testing vaccines to see if they will be effective against H5N1 – the current avian influenza strain. They are also working to develop new manufacturing techniques that will allow more rapid production of new influenza vaccines and help us move away from the current technology, which require embryonated chicken eggs and at least 6 months to produce the first dose of new vaccines.

Question: With the United Nation’s Health Coordinator’s recent hypothesis that the avian flu could reach the Americas within six to 12 months (and possibly sooner) what preparations are being made to safeguard Tennessee?

Answer: It appears that avian influenza is spreading to Africa and Europe by both trade in birds and poultry as well as by migratory birds. The U.S. government is testing migratory birds for avian influenza. The best advice for Tennesseans to avoid avian influenza and the current influenza outbreak is to wash hands frequently, stay home when sick, cover your mouth when you cough and get an annual flu shot to protect against each year’s influenza strain. There are no warnings in place about migratory birds at this time, though it is always good advice to avoid touching ill or dead birds. It is important to note that well-cooked chicken or duck is safe to eat.

Question: What is the likelihood that the virus will mutate into a human-to-human form?

Answer: Fortunately, the current H5N1 influenza strain circulating among birds is not spreading from person to person. It is impossible to predict when or if this will occur with this strain.

Question: Should the virus mutate, how quickly could it come to the states?

Answer: It is possible that a mutated strain of avian influenza will be spread first by migratory birds. If it causes an outbreak in humans, it could spread through international travel. The World Health Organization is monitoring the situation closely and
will make every effort to contain outbreaks in other countries, which could delay its arrival in the U.S.

Question: What can people be doing now to prepare in the event of a pandemic reaching our area?

Answer: Tennesseans should learn now how to avoid catching or spreading flu viruses by frequent hand washing, covering coughs, staying home when ill and getting a flu shot to protect them against each year’s regular flu outbreak. Others suggestions include the basics of emergency preparedness such as keeping several weeks of food, batteries, medications and water in your home as well as a battery-powered radio. A good Web site for the latest information is pandemicflu.gov.

Question: The CDC has guidelines for avian flu preparedness. Does the Tennessee Department of Health?

Answer: The Tennessee Department of Health has had a Pandemic Influenza Response Plan in place since 1999. The Department is in the process of making major revisions to the current plan to assure it is in line with newly issued federal guidance.

For more information about the avian flu, visit pandemicflu.gov.

Answers supplied by the Tennessee Department of Health.

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