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Officials Offer Guidance on Bird Flu
Stars and Stripes  |  January 12, 2006
FRANKFURT, Germany - Mounting concern over avian influenza and the possibility of it evolving into a pandemic has U.S. State Department officials in Europe striving to allay unwarranted fears while still offering meaningful guidance to Americans aboard.

The U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt, Germany, for example, held a town hall meeting Tuesday evening and will hold a second session in Stuttgart on Thursday. Two similar meetings were held in Brussels, Belgium, in early November.

In contrast, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Rome advised Americans in Italy to access its Web site for information on avian influenza. Officials at other embassies in Europe offered the same advice, at least for now.

"It’s a worldwide effort to keep American citizens informed," said a consulate spokesman in Frankfurt, who asked not to be identified.

Concerns over the H5N1 avian influenza virus have grown exponentially in the past week ever since the deadly strain surfaced in humans in Turkey. There are at least 15 confirmed cases, three of which have resulted in death, according to a World Health Organization update Tuesday. Dozens of other suspected cases in Turkey are being investigated.

"We are prepared to keep the (American) community informed as things go forward," said Joe Pennington, a press spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey.

Pennington added that U.S. nationals and State Department employees in Turkey have been kept abreast of developments since last week, despite the fact that people are off for a weeklong Turkish holiday.

The town hall meeting in Frankfurt on Tuesday drew only a handful of people, excluding State Department personnel. Still, for those who did attend, the meeting provided useful information and tips that officials will repeat for people who come to Thursday’s session in Stuttgart. The 6 p.m. meeting will be held at the German-American Center at Charlottenplatz 17.

"I don’t think you should be panicked," a State Department medical officer said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The doctor, who spoke on background and thus could not be identified, explained the deadly virus can easily pass from bird to bird, but that it’s rare for it to be transferred from birds to humans. That could happen if a person comes in contact with an infected bird’s blood, saliva, feces or urine, as was apparently the case in Turkey.

But if the virus ever evolves and becomes passed from human to human, the doctor added, thenwe could be in for a very disastrous situation."

Much of the guidance was of the common sense variety: Wash your hands, stay home if you are sick, avoid poultry farms and bird markets, and get the seasonal flu shot. The flu shot doesn’t stop the virus but it does help health officials rule out the common flu should someone get infected, officials said.

The medical officer suggested people moderately stockpile a few basic items, such as water, food and medicine, should a pandemic come about and services of one sort or another are temporarily interrupted. The official recommended people regularly check the WHO Web site, www.who.int/en/, and the Center for Disease Control Web site, www.cdc.gov, for update information.

"Usually, avian influenza doesn’t spread to humans," the doctor said. "The virus sticks to the birds."

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