Campus takes precautions to ward off bird flu

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    Many in the United States think of the bird flu as a problem only in Asian countries, but little do they know, a strain of avian influenza was found closer than one might think: on a Texas chicken farm. Now, TCU is taking precautions to ensure the safety of students against bird flu.According to the World Health Organization, as of March 21, there were a total of 184 confirmed human cases of the avian influenza, resulting in 103 deaths.

    Most human cases of avian influenza occurred in Vietnam in 2005, where 19 out of the 61 people who caught the disease died, according to the WHO Web site. So far, avian influenza has yet to affect people in the United States.

    Although no one in the United States has become infected, there was a chicken farm in Gonzales County in southern Texas classified as having a “high-pathogenic” strain of the influenza among its birds, according to federal officials in late February. The birds were destroyed, and since then, no other cases in Texas have been reported.

    Avian influenza, also known as H5N1, is a virus that is very contagious among poultry. Although instances of avian influenza affecting humans have been rare, they do occur, usually through contact with infected poultry or surfaces.

    In a few rare cases, humans have contracted avian influenza from one another, but what has the Center for Disease Control officials concerned is that the virus can mutate rapidly, making person-to-person spread more likely.

    Humans have no natural immunity against avian influenza, and therefore a pandemic, or epidemic over a wide geographic area, is very possible, according to the CDC.

    There is no vaccine against avian influenza, although most health officials say regular flu medication will treat the avian flu just as well.

    But the Health Center and Dining Services are taking no chances and have begun preparing for a potential bird flu outbreak.

    “Here at TCU, there is a committee composed of various staff and faculty that have met with the public health department, planning for the eventuality of an avian flu-like situation,” said Marilyn Hallam, assistant to the director of Health Services.

    TCU is taking “what-if” precautionary measures against this threat, Hallam said, such as keeping up-to-date information and flu medication on hand.

    As for Dining Services, general manager Rick Flores said Sodexho, TCU’s food distributor, is ensuring that every vendor it uses is clear of cases of avian influenza.

    “Sodexho has a heightened level of awareness and is monitoring their product distributors very closely because of this,” Flores said.

    Bonnie Word, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, said proper food preparation will help prevent flu outbreaks.

    “You cannot get avian flu from eating poultry or eggs if the meat is fully cooked at a temperature of 160 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit,” Word said.

    Hallam said that for the most part, TCU is simply staying alert and in touch with local health officials to ensure it is aware of the latest details regarding the spread of avian influenza.