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SEOUL — The possibility of a bird flu pandemic sweeping the world is concerning world health officials and political leaders alike.

In South Korea, U.S. Embassy officials have begun holding “town hall” meetings to talk about the virus and the possible reactions for Americans living here should an outbreak occur. The first meeting was held this week at the embassy’s information center in Yongsan-gu near Yongsan Garrison. A second meeting is being planned for Busan, embassy officials said.

Here is a look at some of the questions and answers provided in Wednesday night’s meeting:

What’s the latest with bird flu?

The virus, known officially as H5N1, has infected humans in the past three years in parts of southeast Asia and now, most recently, Turkey. (As of this week, news media were reporting North Korea’s first human case, though world health officials had not yet confirmed the news.)

How does the virus spread?

The virus typically spreads from bird to human though human-to-human transmission of the infection is suspected in some rare cases. The infection is spread through secretions of infected birds, namely through feces, waste or saliva. No human case has ever been linked to eating eggs or poultry.

Has the virus appeared in South Korea?

Currently, there are no reported cases in birds or humans in South Korea. In late 2003 and early 2004, 19 poultry farms had bird flu outbreaks. The South Korean government killed millions of birds while paying the farmers full market price for the slaughtered animals. The outbreak was contained; no human case of bird flu has been reported in Korea.

Then why should Americans here worry?

Have you ever gotten sick after a plane ride? One of the easiest ways for any virus to spread involves people traveling on airplanes with close quarters and recycled air. And many people here are likely to take vacations to regions with outbreaks: Thailand, Indonesia, China, even Turkey. Because of that, officials are asking that travelers be wary of any contact with live birds or poultry markets while traveling and remain aware that any illness that comes after a trip could be bird flu.

What are the symptoms?

Fever, cough, sore throat, muscle ache — basic flu-like symptoms.

Is there any cure?

No, but results have shown that one anti-viral drug, brand name Tamiflu, has some effect in preventing the virus from spreading and in treating it. No conclusive evidence is available, through the U.S. government is spending $100 million for further research and countries around the world are stockpiling the drug now.

Can I get Tamiflu?

Actually, yes, because you live in South Korea. Pharmacists here have it in stock, though it does require a prescription. (In America, the drug is strictly reserved for treating ill people and stockpiling.) The drug comes in pill form and some individuals have bought some just in case. The drug is expensive (around $100 for a small supply), though it has a shelf life of five years. Be wary of imposters and purchases over the Internet.

What should I do if a pandemic occurs?

Bottom line: Americans who are living in South Korea would be subject to the decisions of the South Korean government. Embassy officials and other U.S. leaders would work with the Koreans to ensure help for Americans and disseminate news. But if Korea decided to close its airports and ports, Americans must comply. If a human outbreak did occur, it’s likely the government would ask people to remain at home, curtailing any outside activity, until the outbreak is contained.

How prepared is South Korea?

Like other countries, South Korea is working on a response plan, which is due out this summer. (The United States released its plan last fall.) The World Health Organization is compiling these plans and they are available at its Web site. South Korea has 700,000 doses of Tamiflu and is trying to acquire 300,000 more in the next year. South Korea has pledged that any release of this stockpile would be based on containing the virus, not on ethnicity or citizenship.

So I should begin stockpiling food and Tamiflu?

Both are options, government officials say. At this point, the most important thing is to stay informed of the disease and to use caution when traveling, they add.

What about caution in daily life? Can I still have my eggs sunny side up?

In countries without the outbreak, there’s no reason not to. But if you’re traveling to other regions of Asia, it’s best to use common sense and order scrambled.

More on avian flu from:

U.S. Embassy, Seoul

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

World Health Organization

U.S. State Department


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