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Americans worry about the bird flu

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ATLANTA — Nearly 60 percent of Americans are concerned about bird flu, but fewer than one-third think it will show up in the United States this year, according to a new poll.

The survey also found that blacks tend to be more worried than whites, and that most people would hole up if human outbreaks erupt.

The Harvard School of Public Health telephone survey asked a series of "What if" questions of 1,043 adults Jan. 17-25.

It's the first public, in-depth survey to ask Americans what they know about bird flu and how they might respond if the virus evolves to spread among people, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The results show that U.S. bird flu outbreaks could have severe economic effects.

About 46 percent of respondents who eat chicken said they would stop eating it if bird flu hits the U.S. poultry industry.

If human outbreaks occurred, 75 percent said they would reduce or avoid travel, 71 percent said they would skip public events and 68 percent said they would stay home and keep their children at home while the outbreak lasted.

"Bam, if it hits their community, they're going to stop doing everything," said Robert Blendon, the Harvard health policy professor who directed the survey.

Only 2 percent of people who responded said they have talked to a doctor about Tamiflu or other antiviral medications for treatment of a pandemic flu virus. Fewer said they had obtained a prescription.

The poll results seem to contradict anecdotal reports that significant numbers of Americans are trying to stockpile Tamiflu, said Glen Nowak, a CDC spokesman.

However, if human outbreaks did occur, 68 percent said they would try to get a prescription for an antiviral drug.

Scientists aren't certain whether bird flu will mutate into a form that's easily spread person-to-person, and they aren't sure how well Tamiflu or other antivirals would work against it.

"It's a natural thing for people to call their doctor and see if there's some kind of medication they could take," Blendon said. "But it's not clear we're going to have antivirals that will actually work.

An international Ipsos poll done last year, before the disease had spread to Europe, found that only a third of Americans were worried.

The new Harvard poll, conducted Jan. 17-25, found that 57 percent of Americans are concerned about the potential spread of bird flu to the United States. Over half said they closely follow media coverage of the disease.

Asked what might happen this year, only 24 percent think it will hit U.S. poultry, and just 14 percent think it will affect humans.

But a notable gap appeared in the worry levels of blacks and whites, Blendon said. About 70 percent of African-Americans said they are concerned about bird flu, compared to 54 percent of whites.

Blacks suffer higher rates of HIV and other infectious diseases and may be more sensitive to threats of evolving contagions, Blendon said.

Overall, the poll results indicate people are keeping informed about bird flu without panicking, said Nowak of the CDC.

The Harvard poll was conducted by ICR of Media, Pa., and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

On the Net: Harvard School of Public Health: www.hsph.harvard.edu/