Forget birds: We could all die from this flu

At the risk of sounding like a crazed Chicken Little, I would like to call your attention to the possibility of a pandemic of killer influenza.

I know: You don't want to hear about it. Isn't it enough to be worrying about terrorist attacks and global warming? Plus, we can't even contemplate a beach getaway anymore without the thought of a tsunami wrecking our reverie.

When it comes to sounding alarms, I must admit that I lost credibility back in 1999, when I had prepared for possible Y2K problems with, among other supplies, a barrel of rice, enough canned beans for a hobo convention, and a stash of toilet paper that rose to the rafters of my attic.

But this time, I really think I'm onto something.

If you've been paying attention to news headlines over the past several months, you've likely heard about the avian (or bird) flu in South East Asia. Infected poultry can give it to humans.

If you're an obsessive checker of an RSS [Really Simple Syndication] headline-news service on your computer, as I am, you may be aware that the word "pandemic" is appearing with alarming regularity in these bird flu stories.

This particular strain, labeled H5N1, is an especially nasty version of the flu. Few humans have caught it, but among those who have, the death rate has been a whopping 75 percent. Yikes. Compare that with the death rate of regular old flu, which is 0.1 percent. And the bird flu appears to target the young and the healthy.

By now you may be wondering whether a vaccine could save us. The answer: eventually.

It would be months after the beginning of a pandemic before scientists could develop a vaccine. Such a vaccine may well be able to save those who don't perish when– and if– the first wave of a pandemic washes around the globe. As it stands now, there's no vaccine for this flu bug.

But wait– there's a drug that could save your life if you're exposed to the disease. According to an article in Nature last November, "The World Health Organization (WHO) has mentioned Tamiflu [the brand name for oseltamivir] as the drug for tackling bird flu if ever a human pandemic breaks out."

Not only does this drug reduce the severity of the flu, it also makes it less likely you'll pass the virus onto others. And, according to the Virginia Department of Health, Tamiflu can also be used to prevent getting the flu in the first place.

If this disease becomes easily transmissible from human to human, it'll be all about the Tamiflu.

So, am I crazy to think that it'd be wise to get a prescription for Tamiflu, just in case? That's what I did, and you could contact your doctor if you'd like to be prepared.

Already, this strain of bird flu has been transmitted from human to human, but scientists say it will require a mutation for the disease to spread easily. Should someone contract both regular flu and avian flu simultaneously, that person's body would provide the perfect environment for such a mutation.

Then again, maybe we'll get lucky, and it'll mutate into a benign version of the disease. Epidemiologists say that is one of the possibilities.

If you're a pessimist, you might want to get the drug for yourself and the people you care about. If you're an optimist, feel free to snicker at those of us who're arming ourselves against a possible pandemic.

Here's hoping that my own stash of Tamiflu will outlive its expiration date and become part of my personal-preparedness museum, along with the dozen or so oil lamps, the manual coffee grinder, and the immense bottle of Tylenol from Sam's Club that still has enough pills in it to care for an entire flock of bird flu victims.