Worried that bird flu in Asia could morph into a human flu pandemic, healthy patients, schools and even some doctors are asking if they should stock up on Tamiflu, the one medicine experts believe might help fight the virus.
Although some doctors' groups in the United States say no, the agency in charge of the country's public health has no answer. That has frustrated American local health officials who want to know how to advise people.
"Those are questions that are under discussion," Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said this week. "Right now we're focused on the seasonal flu." The department includes the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose job includes dispensing public health recommendations.
"A lot of people have asked the CDC to provide some guidance about this, with patients asking doctors for prescriptions," said Dr. Craig Conover, medical director for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Personal hoarding is not fair, he said, "but on the other hand, I have heard people say that the more this gets used, the more manufacturing ability they'll develop. We've chosen to wait for CDC guidance on this."
Tamiflu is a prescription pill designed to treat regular flu. But it also seems to offer some protection to people against the type of flu that has devastated Asian poultry flocks and is spreading to birds in Europe. Bird flu has killed more than 60 people over the past two years.
On Thursday, Tamiflu's Swiss maker, Roche Holding AG, said it was temporarily suspending shipment to private U.S. suppliers because of increased global demand.
"We've seen recently some very large purchases at the wholesale level, companies or large entities who are possibly hoarding Tamiflu right now," said Darien Wilson, spokeswoman at Roche's U.S. offices in Nutley, New Jersey.
Prescriptions for the drug last week were nearly quadruple what they were a year before, according to Verispan, a Pennsylvania-based company that monitors pharmacy sales.
And this winter's flu season has not even started yet.
Maura Robbins of Chicago said she and her husband have discussed whether to seek prescriptions for their two young children as a precaution against a pandemic. They won't for now, because they "didn't want to buy into the hysteria or overreact," she said.
Dr. Bennett Kaye, a pediatrician affiliated with Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital, said he tells patients that stocking up on Tamiflu "is definitely a bad, bad idea."
The virus circulating among Asian birds is not spreading between people and is not even very easy for people to catch from birds. "Parents should not be worried about their kids catching bird flu this year unless they're planning on visiting a chicken farm in Vietnam," Kaye said.
Published reports suggest that some doctors are keeping supplies of Tamiflu to give to family and friends in case the bird flu mutates into a bigger threat, but no doctors reached for this story acknowledged that.
The American Medical Association is against personal stockpiling and says the misuse of Tamiflu could lead to drug-resistant flu strains, reports the AP. I.L.