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Germ Alert: Protecting Your Family

Eating rare meat; avoiding avian flu

Q  My husband likes to cook our burgers medium-rare and our eggs "sunny and runny," but what about the bacteria in these raw foods? Am I being a germophobe?
[ANSWER {No. Much of the meat and eggs on our supermarket shelves is contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, and these bugs are more drug resistant than ever. Most of the time, the infections people get are run-of-the-mill food poisoning, but in a small fraction of cases, gastrointestinal infections can become a life-threatening problem. Infected babies and toddlers are among those at highest risk of death and serious complications.

To kill these germs, public-health experts recommend that you hard-cook eggs and use an instant-read thermometer to make sure burgers and egg dishes reach an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, don't let raw meat or eggs contaminate other food in your kitchen; wash any plate, cutting board, counter, or silverware that's come in contact with the raw food before it touches any other food. For people who really want their eggs sunny-side up and runny, a growing number of supermarkets now carry pasteurized-in-the-shell eggs (such as Davidson's Safest Choice).}]

Q  I heard that avian flu could arrive any time with migrating birds. Is it safe to let my child feed ducks at the park or seagulls at the beach?
[ANSWER {Even if the dangerous avian-influenza virus (technically referred to as highly pathogenic H5N1) turns up in North American birds, the chance of transmission from birds to humans is low. In Asia, the people who have gotten this flu were almost exclusively those who regularly handle chickens and ducks. The greater risk, then, is that this virus will mutate, or change, so that it can be transmitted easily from one person to another. Thankfully, that hasn't happened yet.

Still, you and your child shouldn't get too close to wild birds, says Paul Slota, branch chief of the U.S.G.S. National Wildlife Health Center. Feeding wild birds encourages their crowding  -- which is bad for the birds as well as for people (bird droppings can spread germs).

If your child does touch a wild bird or its droppings, be sure to wash her hands with soap and water before letting her touch her face, eat, or drink. If you're not near a sink, a dollop of alcohol hand gel will do the trick.}]