Do We Really Want to Know This About the Bird Flu?

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Here’s an article that definitely falls under the heading “Do we really want to know?” As the top medical scientists keep close tabs on the movement of the bird flu around the world, experts who specialize in dealing with disaster scenarios are busy plotting the likely course of the virus, should it hit the continental U.S.

 Talk of the potential for the bird flu to turn into a pandemic has circulated through the media for quite a while now, and with good reason, as it is currently considered the single biggest threat to global health. During the First World War, between 30 and 40 million people died of a similar threat, known by the misleading term the “Spanish flu.” A pandemic differs from an epidemic because the former is everywhere, whereas the latter is confined to one geographic region.

 So, what would happen if the bird flu came to the U.S.? Well, Californians may not want to hear this, but it would probably begin in their state. It would take less than a month for it to spread across the entire country. A computer-model scenario created by the National Institutes of Health has predicted this — just as it has predicted the most effective way to slow the virus: have employees stay home. They put together the predictions by using data from ordinary flu epidemics from the past 35 years.

 California is a likely breeding ground because of its large population and because it’s the closest state to Asia, from which the virus would come into the country. The contagious nature of the bird flu would have it spread across the nation in just two to four weeks, which is twice as fast as the five to seven weeks it takes less-powerful infections to move.

 This model assumes that the bird flu could spread from person to person. As of now, it would take close exposure to an infected bird for a human to become infected. Scientists who are tracking the flu are worried that it could mutate, because infections tend to adapt to conditions in order to stay alive, and thus make person-to-person transmission easy.

 Since 2003, the worrisome strain of the virus has been seen in 45 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. More than 100 people have died so far.

 This prediction is not the first of its kind. The government did a similar model to explain the spread of measles as well. In the case of the bird flu, there is no such thing as being too prepared.

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