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Bird-flu panic overshadowing other concerns

OK — I'm as concerned as the next person, I suppose, about the very real possibility of the deadly avian or bird flu, which has been around Asia for a few years, getting to the United States. Some experts say that will likely happen next year, maybe as early as spring, because of the way infected birds may migrate.

The big fear, of course, is that it will mutate into a virus that can spread directly and rapidly between humans. So, yes, I might get a little Tamiflu for my kids and me just for a little good measure — assuming I can actually find any, given that there's been such a rush on the flu-minimizing drug. Sheesh.

One thing is clear: Whether or not the flu is on the way, the panic is already starting.

It's in full force in Europe. Although the virus has not appeared there — except for a few demonstrably imported and subsequently managed cases — chicken consumption is down by half in some countries. Already, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, the maker of Tamiflu, which might accord some flu protection, has said that it will suspend shipments of the drug to the United States until our regular flu season starts. Why? Because Americans are so heavily stockpiling it out of fear of avian flu that there might not be enough to manage the typical flu season.

But as bad as it is now, just wait until one single bird with the virus reaches our shores.

No matter how effective the government's response to that event, the all-out fear that one such winged creature will generate will dwarf even the Christmastime panic that ensued a few years ago when a "downer cow" was found in a U.S. herd. Though the cow hadn't gotten into the food stream, the fear of "mad cow" disease from that one animal caused countless people across the country to throw out, or return if they could, their Christmas roasts. Our beef industry really suffered.

Avian flu is a more serious threat than, say, "mad cow" or last year's supposed lack of regular flu vaccine. Remember when people who had never gotten a flu vaccine in their lives were suddenly freaking out because they might not be able to get one that year? Turns out the vaccine "shortage" was virtually nonexistent after all.

But what always amazes me is that it seems we Americans jump on the bandwagon of these exotic health "threats" — yet virtually ignore the most basic things we can do to improve our health today. Things that are our personal — versus Big Brother's — responsibility.

Most Americans who are panicking or who will panic about the avian flu are overweight. I can say that definitively because most adult Americans — fully two-thirds — are overweight, and we as a nation are getting fatter faster than ever before. Almost one-fifth of our kids are overweight. This carries extraordinary health risks that really are worth panicking about. But I'm guessing that many of the very same mothers worried about their kids getting avian flu are shoveling more french fries into their overweight children in the meantime. What sense does that make?

How many of the same people draining reserves of Tamiflu have carbon-monoxide detectors at home — and regularly check the batteries — or, if they are women over 40, get yearly mammograms or always wear seatbelts? How many of them get regular flu shots for the seasonal flu, an illness that claims 20,000 American lives every year?

I'm not saying we shouldn't be very concerned about the avian flu reaching our shores and ask health officials to be prepared for that threat. It's just that every time one of these new scares, based in reality or not, presents itself, we panic. It seems we prefer to agonize over extreme health hazards, over which we personally have little or no control, rather than change the very real and often hazardous behavior in our own lives over which we do have control.

Betsy Hart is the author of "It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting Is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It." She can be reached at