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Local Health Officials Weigh in on Human Flu Pandemic

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – A-B-C television will air an original movie Tuesday night called "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America". Some viewers may find the depiction of a potential flu outbreak alarming. But a couple of local health officials weigh in on a human flu pandemic versus a bird flu outbreak.

The two hour, made for T-V movie will portray a fictional outbreak of the Avian flu that effect tens of millions of victims world-wide. The story will explain that the bird flu strain originated in Hong Kong and then spread from human to human.

But what local health officials are saying right now, is it is too hard to predict if the bird flu will even jump from human to human.

"It is important for the public to know that influenza circulates in birds all the time," said Billittier.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Anthony Billittier says when watching tonight's movie, the public should put things in perspective. Billittier stressed that bird flu is different than a human flu virus outbreak.

"This particular virus in the bird population seems to jump occasionally into the human population and cause a pretty high death rate. Roughly 50% of people who get it die. But the thing that is working in our favor is once it jumps from a bird to a human, that human tends not to give it to others, and that is the thing that would have to happen," noted Billittier.

Billittier says what is important for Americans to realize is there is a potential for a human flu pandemic. Dr. Timothy Murphy agrees. He is the chief of infectious disease at University at Buffalo and at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Buffalo.

"It is worthwhile to consider that there are pandemics of influenza, three per century. Now this is human influenza," said Dr. Murphy.

Murphy says it is very difficult to predict bird flu and if it would affect people in large numbers. Murphy says the biggest concern will be if the bird flu virus changes and mutates, causing a potential transfer from person to person.

"All this preparation that we are doing to prepare for Avian influenza is a good thing because we can use the infrastructure and preparation for bird flu, which may or may not happen, to be prepare for human pandemic influenza. That will occur, we just don't know when exactly it will occur," said Dr. Murphy.

Murphy says bird flu will "very likely" end up in birds in North America, and is predicted to occur this fall. But it doesn't necessarily mean a human outbreak.

Both the Erie County Health Department and the University at Buffalo are working toward plans to handle a potential human flu pandemic.