Harvard survey finds Americans aren’t too worried about an outbreak in our backyard.

Although bird flu has yet to flap its malignant way across the Atlantic, individual Americans are already strategizing for its arrival, according to a new opinion survey from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Over 1,000 people were polled for the survey conducted by phone in mid-January. Most of the participants (78% of respondents) said they were not concerned about contracting avian flu, with only 4% reporting that they were very worried.

“The big findings are that Americans are paying attention to this threat—they’re concerned, but they’re not very concerned,” said Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and director of the survey. “In the next year, they really don’t see this spreading very widely either among people or poultry across the US.”

Blendon said that the survey indicated that Americans are thinking rationally about their potential responses to the flu should it make its way over.

“They wouldn’t travel; they wouldn’t go on planes; they wouldn’t go downtown; they wouldn’t go to public places; they wouldn’t go to ballgames. They would try to get a prescription for some sort of antiviral drug; they would stay at home for some period; they would pull their kids out of school,” he said. “All of this makes absolute sense.”

Still, he said, his results indicate that an indirect, but potentially very serious consequence of these sensible behaviors would be the impact on the economy. The effect of an epidemic would decimate the poultry industry, due to public misconceptions about the safety of cooked chicken. Blendon says Americans are transposing a relic of the mad cow scare, when even cooked beef presented a threat, to cooked chicken, which does not transmit avian flu.

“Nearly half of people who ate chicken regularly said that if cases showed up in poultry in their area, they were going to stop eating chicken, which suggests that people perceive that cooking does not lead it to be very safe,” Blendon said. “So, if that actually were to happen you would have a very sharp fall-off in the consumption of chicken, and it would affect the industry.”

Despite that possible point of poultry paranoia, Blendon is confident that Americans are savvy enough about news to respond appropriately to any threat.

“I think people are paying enough attention to the news that the volume of cases will be very important to them,” he said. “And if it really looks like it’s spreading in an area that they’re exposed to, they are going to be very risk-averse, very quickly. But they’re not going to take two wild birds discovered [with the virus], or one person who flew in from some Asian country, as a signal that they need to be overreacting.”

Originally published March 6, 2006

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