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Oprah's Show Tells Viewers How to Prepare For Bird Flu Pandemic - Winfrey Interviews Avian Influenza Expert Doctor

June 4th 2006

Oprah's Show Tells Viewers How to Prepare For Bird Flu Pandemic - Winfrey Interviews Avian Influenza Expert Doctor

Influenza Virus

The Oprah Winfrey show concerning the bird flu re-ran again Saturday night after the local news.  It was an eye opening conversation with Dr. Michael Osterholm.  He is an infectious disease expert from the University of Minnesota.  Osterholm told the audience that “there really are, in a sense, three different kinds of influenza viruses.  There is that which naturally lives in wild birds. That virus doesn't really hurt us very often."

The second type is the seasonal flu which kills 36,000 people a year in the US.  The third type is the one experts are worried about.  This is the flu that may infect both birds and humans.  According to Osterholm, “That's when we see a pandemic, or a worldwide epidemic.  And that's what we worry about."

Viruses are different from bacteria.  They are smaller and require a host cell to reproduce.  Most scientists believe viruses are not living things, but exist as a protein coat or capsid, sometimes enclosed in a membrane.  According to UC Berkley researchers, viruses insert their genetic material into host cells, causing the host cell to reproduce more viruses.  In some cases, viruses may remain dormant before they are stimulated.


Interesting, those most at risk of dying are between the ages of 20 and 40.  Also, pregnant women might be the least likely to survive.  Dr. Osterholm explained to the audience that “The people who have the healthiest immune systems are the ones that succumb to the virus because the immune system goes into overdrive."

The coming pandemic may be similar to the pandemic of 1918. Known popularly as the “Spanish flu,” it killed more people, more quickly, than any other known epidemic in the history of mankind. 

Scientists analyzed viral gene samples taken from flu victims preserved in the Alaskan permafrost and from preserved Army US hospital biospy materials. This information allowed them to reconstruct certain proteins of the 1918 influenza virus, such as the "hemagluttinin membrane glycoprotein," (HA).  Drs James Stevens and Ian Wilson, of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla California, found that the 1918 viral HA looks similar to that in bird flu viruses, confirming its avian origin.  This concerns medical experts. 


According to Dr. Osterholm, common surgical masks will do very little to stop the spread of the virus.  Surgical masks prevent doctors from breathing directly on patients, but they have holes and vents on the sides to keep air flowing freely through the mask. 

Other masks are better.  The N95 mask has sealed sides that will block contaminated air.  Dr. Osterhold says the virus can live outside the mask for two to three days.  For this reason, you should dispose of the mask after each use to avoid contamination.  Since these masks are shipped from overseas, they will likely be in short supply when a pandemic hits.      

If this strain leads to a pandemic there will likely be shortages of all sorts of medicine, since much of it is imported from overseas manufacturers.  There may be shortages of blood pressure medicine, cholesterol medicine, chemotherapy medicines, and nearly every other medication we rely on. 


Then there will be logistical problems.  Truck drivers will either be too afraid to go to work or may become infected themselves, leaving them unable to work. Hospitals will become overcrowded, and other important facilities may quit working. 

The experts recommend keeping enough supplies for several weeks of isolation. I would think the more the better.  It will be important to have water, especially if your water supply depends on electricity (pumps / wells). 

Dr. Osterhold said it is not a matter of “if” the pandemic hits, it is a matter of “when”.  This current H5N1 avian flu virus may not mutate so that it is easily transmitted between humans, but it is just a matter of time before one does.   Previous Article About Oprah's Show

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Dan Wilson
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