University monitoring spread of avian influenza
With avian influenza now found in Asia, Europe and Africa, the University is preparing for the possible arrival of the virus in North America. Experts stress, however, that the virus currently poses little threat to humans.
U-M health professionals, academic leaders, human resources experts, communicators and other key administrators have been meeting regularly since September to discuss measures to protect the campus communities in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint if bird flu becomes a human health problem in the United States.
"We are laying the groundwork for a response to bird flu or pandemic influenza, in case that becomes necessary," says Dr. Robert Winfield, director of the University Health Service.
Included in the effort are highly regarded public health and infectious disease specialists Dr. Arnold Monto, professor of epidemiology; Dr. Matthew Boulton, professor of epidemiology and associate dean in the School of Public Health; Dr. Sandro Cinti, assistant professor of internal medicine and Dr. Carol Chenoweth, clinical associate professor of internal medicine-infectious diseases. Preparations also involve coordination with local, state and national agencies, and apply not only to bird flu, but also to other widespread contagious illnesses.
"Regardless of whether bird flu becomes a problem in the United States, these measures will be beneficial," Winfield says. "We are building better communication between departments and developing plans that would help in the event of any highly contagious infectious disease on campus."
The H5N1 strain of avian influenza, or bird flu, first infected humans in Hong Kong in 1997, and since mid-2003 was recognized in China and Vietnam. It has been spreading steadily among birds around the world, probably related to migration.
It is uncommon for humans to become ill with avian influenza, experts say. Confirmed human cases worldwide stand at fewer than 200, with about 100 deaths. Human illness has involved close contact with infected birds. The current bird flu virus does not move from person to person in the community and scientists are watching closely to see if it can develop that ability.
While bird flu is of concern worldwide, this is the time of year for the common flu virus in the United States. The flu season has been very mild so far, but some precautions against all kinds of flu are wise.
In an average year, flu kills about 36,000 Americans, making prevention worthwhile. Symptoms of influenza, which is a respiratory illness, include a high fever, cough, head and muscle aches, and trouble breathing.
"You can greatly reduce the chance of getting influenza each winter season by getting a flu vaccination. The flu vaccine is usually quite effective at reducing the chance of getting the flu, even though current vaccines don't specifically address avian influenza," Winfield says. "During the winter months, when the flu and common colds are frequent, the best thing you can do to stay healthy is to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently."
In addition, the University is reminding all faculty, staff and students to use the U-M International Travel Registration Web site when planning to travel outside of the United States: www.umich.edu/~itoc.
"Faculty, students and staff traveling outside the United States can register their travel plans and contact information through the Web site," says John Godfrey, assistant dean for international education at the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. "This will help communications if any hazards arise."
He also suggests that travelers keep abreast of U.S. State Department travel warnings and updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as news about the regions they are visiting.
The University has posted avian flu health and safety recommendations for international travelers on the Travel Information and Registry Website: www.umich.edu/~itoc/travelhealth.html.