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Fears about bird flu fly in the face of reason

If you haven't heard that bird flu's coming to America — probably within months — you must have been vacationing on an undeveloped island.

What may not have sunk in, amid all the hype, is that the best weapon against avian flu, or any other flu, for that matter, is simple, thorough hand washing, coupled with little polite gestures like blowing your nose in a tissue or not coughing on people.

I was curious about what bird flu message people are getting, given the amount of attention paid to H5N1. So I asked a few people what they knew or thought they knew.

It was amazingly unscientific, a few short conversations over the course of several days. I talked to a clerk at the grocery store, visited with a couple with whom I shared a table in a food court over lunch, chatted up a few parents at my kids' school and day care center, brought it briefly into conversations with friends.

I have the advantage of several in-depth conversations with local and national health experts and I've read everything I can find on the topic (from reputable sources), since covering bird flu is part of my job. Still, I was really surprised by some of the things I heard during my "survey."

One individual told me he's eating chicken and turkey now while it's still safe. "Thanksgiving will not be the same," he lamented. The reality is that no reputable expert believes eating poultry will pose a threat, as long as it's properly prepared. And if you do it wrong, forget bird flu. You're setting yourself up for such intestinal delights as salmonella.

One mixed bird flu and West Nile virus. Several thought it passes easily from person to person. That one stunned me. Everything I've seen on the topic talks about the potential for bird flu to become a pandemic — as in, if it were to happen in the future. The virus would have to change so that it easily transmits person to person. Officials agree that a pandemic of some sort will happen; history and the nature of Nature itself says they occur on occasion. The hype surrounds bird flu because it seems possible it could mutate enough to become people-passable. But it certainly hasn't happened yet and may not.

I'm not trying to diminish the concerns. Elected officials including the president believe the potential is serious enough that they're putting a lot of money into trying to develop a good vaccine.

But being uninformed or overhyped about it doesn't help anyone. Folks are not, for whatever reason, absorbing some of the key information. For instance, people have been infected, but the vast majority of them work closely with infected birds. Some live in poor villages where they sleep with their chickens. And some of the earliest cases involved people who were actually doing things like sucking the mucous out of the bird's beak prior to cock fights. Blech.

Yesterday, I got an e-mail from the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition made up of restaurants, food companies and consumers, decrying ABC's made-for-TV movie about bird flu. I had to smile. They called it a "fake-u-mentary."

In "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," 20 million Americans die. So far, internationally, 206 people have been infected.

Center director David Martosko said, "This film is no more factual about bird flu than the Wizard of Oz is about tornados."

The problem, Martosko said, is that common sense (that's that hand washing thing, again) can't compete with surgical masks and hazmat suits on TV.

I have some fairly pedestrian tastes and like a good disaster movie. But too often we confuse fact and fiction. If you don't believe it, look at the fervor around "The Da Vinci Code."

Deseret Morning News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at