The appearance of bird flu in the United States could cause extensive
economic disruption, according to a new poll surveying 1,043 people by
the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).
This is the first in-depth look into how Americans would
respond to the threat. The study is the 23rd in a series conducted by
HSPH’s Project on the Public and Biological Security. The initiative
uses national surveys to gauge public understanding of recent health
Currently, though no human cases have been found in Europe or
the United States, the World Health Organization reported at least 92
confirmed human fatalities from the H5N1 flu virus—mostly in southeast
Asia and China as well as Iraq and Turkey. The virus has already been
found in commercial poultry in Asia, and, as of last Thursday, for the
first time in Europe on a French turkey farm.
Professor of Public Health and Political Analysis Robert J.
Blendon said that the preventive measures the public is prepared to
take during an outbreak of the avian flu could cause an economic crisis
within the United States.
He referred to a Dec. 8 Congressional Budget Office report on
possible macroeconomic consequences, which estimated that a severe
pandemic might result in a five percent reduction in real GDP from
worker absences and reduced consumption.
Of the people surveyed in the study, 46 percent said that they
would stop eating poultry if the flu appeared in American farm birds.
If human cases appeared in their state, 71 percent said they would
avoid public events and 68 percent said they would stay home and keep
their children at home.
“This could cause a huge economic problem,” said Blendon. “It
relates not only to health care but also people stopping all economic
activity. They won’t go out, won’t shop, won’t drop their kids off at
Blendon said that in the future, he hoped to do some later
tracking on what people thought about the progression of bird flu as
part of the series, and that two or three more surveys might be done if
the threat persisted.
Students had mixed opinions about the potential flu epidemic.
Most indicated that they did not feel an immediate threat, although
they said that they would stop eating chicken if the flu appeared in
American poultry. According to Blendon, cooked birds are safe.
Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) communications
director Jami Snyder said that if a flu outbreak were to ever occur,
HUDS would take appropriate measures as outlined by governmental
“We’d work with our Environmental Health and Safety liaison
and follow the recommendations of the FDA,” she said, noting that
chicken breasts were among the most consumed items on dining hall
Ron Morales, manager for biological safety, food safety, and
sanitation at Harvard’s environmental health and safety department,
wrote in an email that besides weighing menu decisions on the latest
scientific data, HUDS would also take into account the concerns of
students and parents.
Meanwhile, the University’s emergency management structure has
been working on formulating a contingency plan for a flu emergency. On
Feb. 2, a “table-top” drill was held by over 250 University officials
on how to deal with a bird flu crisis at Harvard.