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By Alex Key, 14, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies
and Gabe Andreen, 14, Pilgrim School

Some media reports about bird flu make it sound like this huge epidemic that will take over the world. It’s enough to make you feel like running and hiding. We are just entering the flu season now, and most of us don’t know what to do to protect ourselves.

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The first step is to learn what bird flu really is—and how it’s different from the regular flu that comes every year. Bird flu is scary, but once you learn about it, it doesn’t sound as bad. There are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself if this nasty flu comes to the United States. Below are our answers to common questions about bird flu based on our interview with Donna Chartrand and Sylvia Walker, two nurses from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. We also checked statistics from the World Health Organization.

What is bird flu?
Bird flu, which is also known as avian flu, is caused by a group of viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. Though wild birds can carry the flu without getting sick, if they pass it to domestic fowl like farm chickens, they can die. On rare occasions, the flu has been transmitted from birds to humans. This has only happened when there is close contact between birds and humans, such as when people who are raising chickens allow them in the house.
    The reason people are worried about bird flu is because scientists think that at some point, it could change into a strain that is contagious among people. At that point, the disease will spread easily from person to person, because people have little natural immunity. It could become “pandemic;” meaning it would be a global outbreak of serious illness involving tens of thousands or millions of people.
    The media sometimes confuses bird flu with pandemic flu. They are two different things. At this point in the game, bird flu cannot be classified as pandemic.

How close is bird flu to the U.S.?
So far, no Americans have been infected.

What are the symptoms of bird flu?
The symptoms of bird flu are similar to those of the seasonal flu—the type we normally think of when we think of the flu. Cough, sore throat, fever and fatigue are on the list. You may also experience some vomiting and diarrhea. “It will hit like a ton of bricks,” said Donna Chartrand, a nurse from the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

How many people have died from bird flu?
There have been 252 cases of people getting bird flu since 2003, and of those, 148 people died, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Most of the cases were in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and China, where many people raise birds.
    Though flu shots offer some protection from the regular flu, there is no bird flu vaccine available for humans at this time.

How can I get the bird flu?
At the moment the only way you can contract the flu is from close contact with infected poultry like chickens, turkeys and ducks. This has not yet happened in the U.S. and is unlikely to happen because the U.S. poultry industry does not allow its birds outside where they might have contact with wild birds.

What will cause bird flu to become “pandemic?”
Right now wild birds can give the flu to each other. Because the flu occurs naturally in birds it does not hurt them.  Wild birds can infect domestic birds like chickens, ducks or geese. The domestic birds may infect people or pigs.
    For the flu to become pandemic, meaning it will spread throughout the world, it would have to mutate, and scientists think this is likely to happen at some point. If a person is infected with different strains of the virus at the same time, the viruses might trade genetic information in a process called “re-assortment.” This could produce a new strain of the virus which can be transferred from human to human who are in close contact.

What effect would the pandemic flu have on L.A.?
Many people would be out of work or school because they’re sick or they’re taking care of a sick family member. Experts estimate that between 15 to 35 percent of the population would become ill. Medical facilities may not be able to accommodate all the people in need. Schools might be closed and public events might be cancelled to prevent transmission.

When will the pandemic flu come?
Scientists don’t have exact dates for a pandemic flu but they believe it’s inevitable. Like an earthquake, it’s hard to predict.

What can I do to prevent getting sick?
You should get an annual flu shot, avoid people who are coughing and sneezing and wash your hands frequently. Once a pandemic flu comes in a big way, public events should be avoided. If you are exposed to a person with the flu, you should take antivirals which decrease the impact of the flu virus. If you get sick, avoid close contact with people and wear a mask to keep from passing the flu on to others.

Can chickens get the bird flu?
Yes, but they can only give the flu to you if you come into close contact with them.

Can I still eat poultry?
Yes, as long as you cook the meat or eggs well.