Chertoff: Bird flu possible in U.S. within months
But, he says, 'We're going to be able to deal with it'
From Mike Ahlers
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Migratory birds could carry the avian flu virus to U.S. shores in the next few months, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned Thursday.
Chertoff attempted to reassure the public by saying the federal government has experience in dealing with such outbreaks.
"I can't predict, but I certainly have to say that we should be prepared for the possibility that at some point in the next few months, a wild fowl will come over the migratory pathway and will be infected with H5N1," he said. (Watch possible flight path of virus -- 1:50)
H5N1 is a strain of the avian influenza virus that has killed at least 95 people since 2003.
"If we get a wild bird or even a domestic chicken that gets infected with avian flu, we're going to be able to deal with it because we have got a lot of experience with that," he said.
The presence of avian flu in Asia and Europe had led some countries to destroy large flocks of domestic birds. And health experts fear that the flu strain could mutate, making it more easily transferable to humans. Such a mutation could result in a pandemic.
The last three pandemics, in 1918, 1957 and 1968, killed about 40 million, 2 million and 1 million people, respectively.
But Chertoff said the Department of Agriculture has successfully contained other outbreaks, and the federal government is working on a plan to prevent or mitigate future ones.
U.S. farming practices might help prevent an outbreak if an infected wild fowl enters the country, he said.
"We keep a lot of our poultry business indoors, so we don't have the kind of situation that a lot of countries have where there's a lot of mixing of wild fowl and domestic fowl, but there would be a reasonable possibility of a domestic fowl outbreak," he said.
The public, Chertoff said, should "react with alertness and with care, but not with panic."
"We've dealt with these kinds of issues before, similar issues. We actually are working on a very specific plan to deal with this. We would obviously be monitoring for human health characteristics, but it would not be time to push the panic button."
If an outbreak occurs, the government plans an ambitious campaign to educate the public, he said.
"It would be time to start to get acquainted with some of the challenges," he said.
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