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News abounds about the avian influenza, also known as the bird flu, and the risk that it might trigger an international pandemic. What remains unavailable is any reliable way to gauge how big that risk might become.

“There’s a lot we don’t know and can’t predict,” said Peter Reinhardt, director of the University’s Department of Environment, Health and Safety. “We don’t know if this strain of avian flu can eventually cause sustained human-to-human infections, or if a mutation of this strain can cause a pandemic.”

Public health experts predict there will be another flu pandemic in the future, Reinhardt said. No one can predict when such a pandemic will occur, or how severe it will be, or which groups will be most vulnerable, Reinhardt said.

Still, Reinhardt said, the University is taking what steps it can to be prepared for whatever might happen and he suggests that individuals should do the same.

“Even with the unknowns, it makes sense to prepare,” Reinhardt said. “It makes sense to help people learn good flu prevention measures — like frequent hand washing.”

Reinhardt said the University is now reviewing and updating its emergency plans in consultation with county and state public health officials.

“We want to work together most effectively in case of any communicable disease outbreak,” Reinhardt said. “We all hope to never see another flu epidemic, but it is good to take advantage of this heightened concern to improve our plans and preparedness.”

In addition to reviewing policies, the department is creating information for students, faculty and staff while developing procedures for distributing medicines.

“We are considering how different pandemic scenarios will affect UNC,” Reinhardt said. “For example, it may be prudent in a pandemic to temporarily suspend classes and other activities.

Today’s bird flu has been compared to the type of influenza virus that caused the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 and 1919 that killed millions of people worldwide. Among its victims was University president Edward Kidder Graham, who contracted the flu on Oct. 21, 1918, and died five days later.

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