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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 November 2005, 22:01 GMT
Your top questions answered

Many viewers and website visitors e-mailed and texted Panorama after "Bird Flu - Facing the pandemic" with questions about avian and human influenza. Here we provide expert answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Is it safe to eat eggs and poultry?

Professor Hugh Pennington
Professor Hugh Pennington, Microbiologist and Food safety advisor

To get flu you have to breathe the virus in and so contact with a sick bird that's breathing the virus out is obviously the simplest way of contracting the virus from a bird.

Eating the bird is a very, very poor way in fact, I'm not aware of any well described circumstance or anybody who has caught flu from eating a sick bird, and there are several reasons for that.

You don't normally eat the flesh raw, it's cooked and that kills the virus.

The acid in your stomach kills the virus anyway, so even if you ate it raw the virus would be killed.

It doesn't go in our intestines, the virus goes in our lungs basically, or even a bit higher up than our lungs, but in our respiratory tract.

So it's the wrong route, there are all sorts of defence mechanisms like the acid in our stomach which kills it off, and basically a bird that has died or is sick from bird flu, most of the virus is still in its lungs or its intestines, it's in part of the bird that we don't eat anyway, so there are all sorts of reasons why eating a bird that has been infected with bird flu is not the way to catch that particular virus.

Eating eggs, even from a bird that has got bird flu, is not going to infect you.

The acid in the stomach is going to kill off any virus that's there, and birds that are sick will not be laying anyway, they're just too sick. That virus gets through those birds very quickly.

They won't be laying so there won't be any infected eggs from these birds because they don't live long enough to produce eggs.

So there are several quite different reasons which all add up to a simple conclusion, you don't catch bird flu from eating eggs, even if you don't cook them particularly well, or if you whisk them up or anything like that, you're not going to be at risk of getting bird flu through the egg route.

Are domestic animals at risk from bird flu?

Debby Reynolds, Chief Vet, DEFRA
Debby Reynolds, Chief Veterinary officer, DEFRA

Anybody who owns a bird, a parrot, a budgerigar, a canary, whatever it is, needs to take the proper hygienic precautions when they're handling them all the time.

Avian influenza, the highly pathogenic form, is not in the United Kingdom at the moment and so people can take the normal sensible hygiene precautions when they're handling these birds.

From that perspective, I don't think the situation has changed in recent weeks or months.

People need to take good hygienic precautions when they're handling their birds and need to look out for any kinds of illness which might mean that the situation for their bird has changed in anyway and take advice from a veterinary surgeon if they're concerned.

There doesn't seem to be very much evidence that (other) pets are susceptible to this virus but that's something which at the moment I don't think is a significant cause for concern for pet owners in the United Kingdom. We don't have avian influenza in the highly pathogenic form in the country.

Is it safe to travel to affected areas?

Dr David Nabarro
Dr David Nabarro, UN Influenza Coordinator

The chances of a human getting bird flu as a result of contact with infected birds really are only going to be significant if you do travel, have close contact with birds in a farm or in a village and if you are close to the killing of chickens. In a market where birds are being sold, and I suspect even then, the actual likelihood of infection is extremely low.

If you eat bird meat in a restaurant in Vietnam, you would expect it to be quite all right because they know exactly how to cook it and they will cook it properly.

And so, all in all, I would say that the risk that you're facing is really very small indeed. And this gives me a chance to say that really we're not here talking about pandemic human influenza, we're talking about humans who accidentally get infected with Avian Influenza, the influenza that affects birds.

And that really is not at all common, there are only a few over 100 people who have been infected in this way in the midst of this huge epidemic of Bird Flu and so really I think your chances of being affected in this way are very small.

In a pandemic flu how will 'tamiflu' be allocated and delivered?

Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer
Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health

Tamiflu is a drug which needs to be given in the first 48 hours of an attack of flu if it's going to reduce its severity and shorten the length of time that somebody becomes ill.

So traditionally, when people have had flu or other similar illnesses, they've seen their general practitioner, they've had a consultation, they've walked away with a prescription, they've gone to the chemists and got it filled.

Now that is going to be too cumbersome for this sort of situation. We need to have much more flexible ways of getting the drugs to the people that need it.

When we see the virus emerging, we'll be able to draw up some criteria for distinguishing whether people have got the pandemic flu or whether they may just have a heavy cold or something that's a more run-of-the-mill problem.

So we'll try as far as possible, it won't be perfect, to set out some diagnostic criteria for the pandemic form of the flu so that where possible, the people who need it, get the drugs first.

And then we will be distributing them to general practitioners, health centres, and probably also pharmacies, and we're going to be relaxing the rules for prescribing, so that people won't always have to have a one to one prescription, but there may be a prescription written by a doctor which would cover a number of people who might come to a pick up point to get these drugs.

So pharmacists, nurses in the health centre as well as doctors will be able to help in seeing whether people fulfil the diagnostic criteria and then they'll be able to get the drugs.

And in addition we're also looking at the possibility of home visits and distributing within the community. I think that we will be able to identify from the general practitioners databases people who are particularly vulnerable, but we won't know until we see the behaviour of the virus in real life, the new pandemic strain when it emerges, which groups it's attacking first.

Obviously the expectation would be that people who have other illnesses, chronic diseases like diabetes, kidney disease, whose immune system is impaired from cancer treatment, that they will be special risk, and clearly the drugs will need to be earmarked for them first.

But we have to remember that we're all in this together, we are a country, we are a community, and these drugs will need to be given out fairly.

We want to make sure that the drugs are given according to quite strict criteria so that they're carefully used and so that our precious stockpile isn't drained down with unnecessary treatment.

Should I be stockpiling 'Tamiflu' for myself and my family?

Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer
Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer

We are securing a supply for the estimated number of people who will be attacked by flu.

For the majority of people who get flu, even pandemic flu, it will be a nasty illness that keeps you in bed for a week or ten days, but you will recover.

We need to make sure that those precious drugs are available for people who are at highest risk, and who may actually suffer the most serious complications but we have provided ultimately for enough for the estimated number of people in the whole population who will develop pandemic flu.

If everybody went out haphazardly ordering and buying Tamiflu it would be very unequally distributed and then probably large numbers of people who needed it wouldn't be able to get it, the supplies would run out, and then possibly we would see unnecessary deaths and people seriously ill who could have been treated.

There are dangers in buying drugs over the internet that they may be counterfeit, or drugs that are not properly potent.

We are in this together, it is something for our country to fight together and I think if we pull together and react in a fair way as we've always done in the past crises, helping other members of the community, putting the priorities on the needs of the community as a whole, rather than purely the needs of each individual, then I think we'll have a better outcome and we will have a much better chance of reducing the impact of this pandemic whenever it comes.

Will face masks protect people from pandemic flu?

Dr Jonathan van Tam, Epidemiologist, Health Protection Agency

We have examined the literature on where surgical masks were worn in community settings, particularly in SARS and I have to say the evidence that they provided any benefit is pretty weak.

In a public situation if the wrong masks are worn, or masks are worn for the wrong period of time, they could actually make the situation worse rather than better, and certainly I had very significant concerns about how masks would be taken off by the general public, because if you take a mask off and in the process of doing that you re-contaminate your hands with the outside of the mask and then you touch your face, you might as well not have bothered and you've probably made things worse. The other thing about wearing a mask is that it can feel like kind of a magic bullet and it can make people forget about the other basic things that are really important, for example hand washing and cough etiquette and proper disposal of tissues and so forth.

So if you put all these things together, I would be quite concerned about a position where we were making any kind of broad recommendations for masks in the community, principally because I don't think there's any evidence that it's going to be a step in the right direction.

Professor Hugh Pennington
Professor Hugh Pennington, Microbiologist and Food safety expert

Masks would probably not work terribly well.

You'd probably have to wear a very sophisticated mask to stop the virus actually getting down into your sort of air tubes because the virus actually can pass through the sort of filters that would be normally worn in operating theatre.

There are masks available that would actually stop the virus getting through.

The purpose of really wearing a mask is not to prevent you getting flu, but to prevent you coughing over somebody else because clearly the mask itself would stop the spit coming out of your nose and your mouth, catch most of it, so the wearing of a mask is really a public health thing to stop you infecting somebody else rather than to stop you being infected by somebody else.

Should I take my children out of school if there is a pandemic? Will schools be shut?

Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer

The problem is with a pandemic, it will be around for a long time. It's not just like a hurricane that hits our shores and then goes away.

It will probably come in several waves and in one way or another we expect around a quarter of the population to be affected, so flu is a highly contagious disease and its difficult to escape it completely, so eventually many children in the country are going to get it, that's what happened in 68/9, that's what happened in 57/58, and most of them will recover from it.

Flu will be a nasty illness, a little bit worse than a normal winter flu, but one way or another eventually it will cover most parts of the country.

We need to keep our options open about school opening and closure because there maybe circumstances in which it might benefit our control of this pandemic to close schools for a while, or even ask children not to come to school.



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