Friday, September 23, 2005

Bird Flu Has Scientists On Alert Around The World

Every now and then I like to take a "virtual trip" around the world to find out what health concerns are floating about. The latest threat isn't floating... it's flying... and it's called Influenza A (H5N1) -- better known as avian influenza or bird flu.

On Sept. 21, 2005 environment and health authorities in Abu Dhabi have placed a large order of four million pills for victims of bird flu, according to Gulf News, a news service in the Middle East. "Ali Al Marzouqi, head of preventive medicine at the General Authority for Health Services (GAHS), said that an order of four million pills for bird flu has been placed to cover 400,000 citizens."

And if you think that's a rather high "prevention" measure, the USA Government has ordered 2 million doses of a new vaccine (which has seemed to have positive results fighting this flu strain) from Sanofi-Aventis (from France) for a national stockpile and is negotiating with the company to order more, according to a Reuters, Washington news release reported in USAToday in August. The vaccine is grown in chicken eggs and production can take months.

U.S. scientists say they have successfully tested a human vaccine against H5N1, but it could be several more months before it is approved for manufacture and distribution here.

On August 30, 2005, "Voice Of America" reported that Vietnam, the country hardest hit by bird flu, is starting to target the virus at its source by vaccinating its entire poultry population.

The outbreak of avian flu in Vietnam has forced the country to slaughter some 50 million chickens and ducks.

A few months back, the World Health Organization stated that since 2003, at least 112 people have contracted the bird flu in four Southeast Asian countries, and 90 of them have been Vietnamese. The majority of human deaths have occurred in Vietnam.

Other cases have occurred in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. Tens of millions of chickens and other birds have died or been culled in Asia because of the virus.

The epidemic devastated Vietnam's chicken farmers last year. The government ordered the culling of chickens in infected areas so they could not pass the virus on to humans, and the economic cost has been estimated at more than 200 million dollars. Vietnam is seeking to control avian flu at the source by injecting chickens and ducks throughout the country with vaccines imported from China.

"The head of the program, Van Dang Ky, chief of epidemiology at the Ministry of Agriculture, says the goal is to have all chickens vaccinated before the winter flu season starts." -- according to the Voice of America article

What health officials around the world fear most is that the H5N1 virus may change to a form that can spread as easily among people as it now does among poultry. If that happens, health experts say, the result could be as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed between 20 and 40 million people. That virus was a highly infectious avian flu much like H5N1.

H5N1 quickly destroys a patient's lungs. Most flu has a fatality rate of less than five percent, but H5N1 has so far killed half the people who contracted it in Southeast Asia.

Public health experts say the virus is mutating and could develop the ability to spread easily from person to person and kill millions in a flu pandemic. The "Nature Weekly Journal of Science" reported in May of this year that the spread of avian flu to, and probably between, humans, has already started across Asia.

There are conflicting reports as to how many people the H5N1 flu has killed ... some sources state more than 60 people have died from it in Asia since 2003, but the actual numbers could be far higher since exact figures have not been fully reported in China, according to "recombinomics" ...however, they have an unofficial report that estimates over 8,000 birds AND ANIMALS have already died from the virus in China. They indicated in June of this year that the machine translated list of animal deaths linked to H5N1 bird flu in and around the Qinghai Lake Nature Reserve in Gangcha County is more than 10 fold higher than the official report of May 21 by China to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

Since the reserve is a breeding ground for bar-headed geese (Anser indicus) that migrate over the Himalayas, scientists warn the birds could carry the virus to India, Australia, New Zealand and eventually Europe.

"The occurrence of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus infection in migrant waterfowl indicates that this virus has the potential to be a global threat," Jinhua Liu of China Agricultural University and colleagues wrote in the journals Science and Nature.

One rumor claims that as many as 120 people have already died of the avian flu in China alone... but this is just a rumor at this time.

About Bird Flu:
(Adapted from The Center For Disease Control Website)

Influenza A (H5N1) -- better known as avian influenza or bird flu -- occurs naturally among wild birds worldwide. The virus is very contagious among birds and can be deadly to them -- especially to domesticated birds like chickens.

15 subtypes of influenza A virus are known to be circulating in bird populations. Many forms of avian flu virus cause only mild symptoms in the birds, or no symptoms at all. However, some of the viruses produce a highly contagious and rapidly fatal disease, leading to severe epidemics, such as the H5N1 strain. These virulent viruses are known as "highly pathogenic avian influenza" and are cause for concern.

About Bird Flu Infection:

The virus doesn't typically infect humans. But in 1997, the first instance of direct bird-to-human infection resulted in six deaths in Hong Kong. Since then, there have been other instances of bird flu infection among humans. Since January 2004 at least 53 people are known to have died of the virus - in Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand.

Meanwhile, bird flu has claimed the lives of four Indonesians since July of this year, and three children who died this week are suspected of having had the disease. Laboratory test results are expected within days, doctors said, noting that 13 other patients were under observation, according to an Associated Press report earlier today. "With the high human population density, we can expect to see more cases here, more perhaps than even in Vietnam and Thailand," says WHO representative Georg Petersen. Currently Tamiflu tablets are the only treatment so far proven effective against bird flu in humans.

About How Bird Flu Spreads:

Infected birds shed H5N1 in their saliva, nasal excretions and feces. Bird flu viruses spread among birds when the animals come into contact with contaminated excretions. Scientists believe most cases of human (and other animal) infection have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces.

The virus kills chickens but rarely ducks, according to one source. At the Chinese reserve, it infected wild brown-headed gulls (Larus brunnicephalus) and great black-headed gulls (Larus ichthyaetus), causing symptoms in birds such as tremors, diarrhea, head tilt and paralysis.

Bird flu can cause a range of symptoms in humans. Some patients report fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches. Others suffer from eye infections, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress and other severe and life-threatening complications.

Athough the World Health Organization claims that so far humans have only contracted bird flu after coming into contact with infected animals, many experts agree that it is possible that H5N1 could merge with a human flu virus and create a new virus that could be easily passed between humans with catastrophic consequences.

There are 2 ways the virus could easily mutate, according to BUPA...

In humans - if a person who already has flu is comes into close contact with birds who have highly pathogenic avian flu, there is a tiny chance that the person could become infected with the avian flu virus. If this happens, the person would now be carrying both the human flu virus and the avian flu virus. The two viruses could meet in the person's body and swap genes with each other. If the new virus had the avian flu's genes that made it rapidly fatal and the human flu's genes to allow it to be passed from person to person, a flu pandemic could result.

In pigs - pigs are susceptible to both human and bird flu viruses. If a pig became infected with both viruses at the same time, it could act as a "mixing vessel", allowing the two viruses to swap genes and produce a new virus.

There is no evidence that H5N1 has mutated yet, however every time an avian flu virus jumps from a bird to a person or animal, the risk of a new flu virus being produced increases.