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 emergencies.
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 school.”
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 agencies.
“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 menus.
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.