Survey: Most Americans concerned about avian flu

Feb 27, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – More than half of Americans are concerned about the threat of avian influenza reaching the United States, but few are "very concerned" and fewer still have looked into getting an antiviral drug to protect themselves, according to a survey from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

In a nationally representative sample of 1,043 people taken in late January, 42% described themselves as "somewhat concerned" and 15% as "very concerned" about the avian flu threat, according to a Harvard news release.

However, only 2% had asked their physician about the use of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or other antiviral drugs for protection from avian flu, and fewer than 0.5% had obtained a prescription.

Only about one fifth of the respondents (21%) were worried that they or a family member would contract avian flu within the next year; 78% were unconcerned about that. For comparison, 12% were worried about this risk in a survey taken in December 2004, about a year after avian flu began to spread widely and cause human illnesses in East Asia.

Fifty-nine percent thought that avian flu was likely to occur among wild birds in the United States over the next year, while 38% viewed this as unlikely. However, a 53% majority thought it unlikely that the virus would hit farm-raised poultry in this country. Forty-four percent thought poultry would be affected, though only 17% expected that outbreaks would be widespread.

Close to two thirds of those polled (64%) thought it unlikely that there would be human cases of avian flu in the United States within the next year. Thirty-four percent thought this was likely, and 14% expected widespread human cases.

The respondents were asked what they would do if avian flu did hit the poultry industry or led to human illness in the United States. Close to half (46%) of those who ate poultry said they would stop eating it if poultry outbreaks occurred.

Most of those surveyed said that if human cases occurred in their state, they would reduce or avoid travel (75%), avoid public events (71%), try to get a prescription for Tamiflu or other antivirals (68%), and stay at home and keep their children at home during the outbreak (68%).

In the Harvard news release, Robert J. Blendon, director of the survey, said this type of response "would likely slow the spread of the disease, but it would also have major impact on the state's economy and healthcare system." Blendon is a professor of health policy and political analysis at HSPH.

A 54% majority of Americans follow news media coverage of avian flu closely, according to the results. Nearly the same proportion—53%—said the media were giving the subject about the right level of coverage, while 27% said the media were exaggerating it and 11% said they were underplaying it.

A 69% majority of the respondents were aware that human cases of avian flu had occurred in Asia, and 73% knew there had been no cases in the Untied States. However, 15% thought human cases had already occurred in this country.

Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, a leading advocate of preparedness for pandemic flu, called the survey "an important study in that it begins to track the American understanding of both avian influenza specifically and the general concern regarding preparedness for a future influenza pandemic." Osterholm is director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of the CIDRAP Web site.

However, he said the survey reflects some public confusion about avian flu and its relationship to the risk of a human flu pandemic. "To most citizens it's not clear what avian influenza really means as a human health threat," he said. "They still see this as largely a poultry problem with only occasional transmission to humans."

Thus, most people see the threat to the United States as a possible expansion of the Asian situation, in which widespread bird outbreaks could lead to occasional human cases, Osterholm said, adding, "It's much more than that."

The immediate risk in the United States "will be much lower [than in Asia] because we'll have a much lower rate of disease in poultry and much less human exposure," he said. "But what the public health community is worried about is not that; it’s the risk of a pandemic with avian influenza as the cause. It's about the birds, but it’s not about the birds. The real concern has to be about the future."

The survey was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

See also:

Harvard news release, with links to the full survey results
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/press/releases/press02232006.html

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