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Dr. Weil Asks, "Is 'Bird Flu' Overhyped?"

"In my opinion, the anxiety is unfounded."

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NEW YORK, January 15, 2006 - In his column in Time Magazine, wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil asks whether the concern over "bird flu" (avian influenza) is being overstated. He answers his own question with the comment, "In my opinion, the anxiety is unfounded."

The full text can be found on the Time Magazine website here.

"Anxiety about avian flu is spreading far faster than the disease. Watch enough reports on television about the outbreaks in Turkey, and you could worry yourself sick. In my opinion, the anxiety is unfounded.

"At the moment, the H5N1 influenza virus is mainly a threat to birds. The virus can infect and kill other animals but only if they have close contact with infected birds. The big concern is that it will gain the ability to pass easily from person to person, possibly by exchanging genes with an ordinary flu virus in the body of some unlucky person infected with both. That has not happened yet, and until it does, there can be no pandemic.

"Much has been made of the virulence and lethality of the avian-flu virus, but new findings suggest that mild and asymptomatic infections in humans may have gone unnoticed; the virus may turn out to be far less deadly than we have been led to believe. Even if it does mutate into a more transmissible form, its virulence would probably diminish over time. That is the general pattern of all influenza pandemics, including the terrible one of 1918.

"In addition, we would have a chance to stop the epidemic spread of a mutated avian-flu virus by containing it at its point of origin. A few mining towns in Colorado were able to avoid the 1918 flu by barring outsiders for a few months during the epidemic. Australia mostly escaped because of a strict quarantine of incoming ships.

"In 1918 scientists did not know what viruses were and did not understand how they caused disease. Today we know a lot about them, can make vaccines against them and have some effective antiviral drugs. We also have methods of monitoring disease outbreaks and communicating information about them that were unavailable in the past. There are plenty of health threats to worry about that are real and that we can take precautions against, among them the ordinary seasonal flu that is in full swing (and can still be warded off with a flu shot). We need to keep an eye on the avian flu. We do not need to lose sleep over it."

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From the Jan. 23, 2006 issue of TIME magazine