As far as I can tell, the only people who should be worried right now about bird flu are the ones who make money off birds.

Maybe I should be more graphic — the ones who work in the $29 billion U.S. poultry industry; the ones who produce more chickens and turkeys every year than any other country.

To be clear, they shouldn't worry so much about the actual flu itself — not unless they also like to guard against rhinoceros stampedes, meteor strikes and other rare events. They should, however, worry about something much more devastating: bird flu panic.

As soon as one dead bird shows up with the virus somewhere in the continental United States, it may be hard to stop the stampede away from chicken nuggets and buffalo wings (unless enough Americans believe those things really do come from buffalo).

Even the government seems ready to feed the panic. Last week, the Agriculture Department hinted it would turn to an old-West style of justice in dealing with any sign of the disease in U.S. flocks — slaughter first, ask questions later. If one bird gets sick, the entire flock will go, even before any tests are complete.

And, it goes without saying, before any evidence that humans are in danger.

Our former governor, Mike Leavitt, probably wishes he could take flight from having to deal with this as Secretary of Health and Human Services. He's in a difficult spot. As he made clear in a speech at the National Press Club last week, he can't afford to be nonchalant about the possibility of a flu pandemic that might kill millions of Americans. That's something you wouldn't want to wake up to on CNN without having a plan in place.

But you can't really put a plan together in secret, and any time he talks about the possibility of a pandemic, he runs the risk of inciting public panic, which brings us back to all those poultry farmers.

And Leavitt no doubt is finding out that former FEMA director Michael Brown is a tough act to follow. Brown's disastrous handing of Hurricane Katrina may have many Americans feeling a little skittish about trusting the government to handle a widespread flu outbreak, should it come.

Underlying this debate is a growing sense of unease and doubt worldwide, even, apparently, among scientists. This flu virus has had a lot of time now to mutate into something that can pass from one human to another. But to date, only 109 people are reported to have died from it, and they, for the most part, dealt directly with infected birds. The virus simply hasn't done what the most dire predictions said it would do.

Or, as Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA Today recently, "Technically speaking, it may be one mutation away," but for a virus, that last step can be a real doozy.

It might help if government officials got into the habit of continually reminding people that they are better off looking both ways before crossing the street than they are worrying about how to avoid bird flu. Unless you're in the habit of munching on raw chicken, even an outbreak of dead birds shouldn't keep you away from the meat counter.

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Americans are good at viewing new diseases with alarm, forgetting we have plenty to worry about with all the old diseases. Whether it's Legionnaire's Disease or West Nile Virus, we focus on it rather than, say, the 40,000 or so people who die each year from the good-old-garden-variety flu.

Leavitt reminded his audience that pandemics are a part of life. If it's not bird flu, it will be something else some day that comes along and wipes out a lot of people. He's right. It would be foolish not to prepare, even on state and local levels.

But it also would be smart right now to learn what not to do when some dead birds show up in this country, as they are bound to do sometime soon.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com