Avian flu virus continues its flight westward

Avian Flu Virus Continues its Flight Westward

Since its discovery in Southeast Asia in 1997, Europe and the Americas have given relatively little attention to the avian flu, or H5N1 virus. Now, however, with a confirmed case in the United Kingdom, the Americas have a new-found concern over this potentially serious pandemic.

British officials have announced that a swan was found dead on March 30 in eastern Scotland. The bird tested positive for the H5N1 virus, making it the first reported case of the avian flu in the United Kingdom. The UK is now part of a growing list of countries in Europe with reported outbreaks.

In hope of preventing the spread of the virus, British officials have established a 1.8-mile-radius protection zone surrounding the site of the infected swan. Officials feel that they are adequately prepared to deal with this issue, having met on April 6 with the health and environment department and Scottish officials. They discussed safety measures that should be implemented, including a plan to deal with this possible pandemic.

The greatest fear facing the UK is the possible virus transfer from waterfowl to domesticated poultry. If this occurrs, drastic measures will need to be taken to quarantine infected areas to maintain control over the spread of the virus and attempt to limit panic among the population. A 965-square-mile surveillance zone has been established throughout the UK to monitor bird activity and migratory patterns, which includes 175 poultry farms with over 3.1 million birds.

A recent study by Carnegie Mellon University expresses a pessimistic outlook on the avian flu’s consequences if it reaches the United States. Nineteen medical experts and researchers from the departments of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy held a meeting where they predicted a less than one percent chance that the U.S. will have adequate stockpiles of vaccines or antiviral drugs to prevent a pandemic within the next three years.

Although the experts believe that there is only a 15 percent chance that the H5N1 virus will mutate into a strain that can be transferred via human-to-human contact, the consequences of such a mutation would be devastating. The worst-case scenario would be that six million people would die in the United States and 180 million would die worldwide.

Baruch Fischhoff, one of the authors of the study and a Howard Heinz Professor, stated that “the medical experts’ estimates suggest this is a bigger risk than anything else we are facing.” Nevertheless, experts agreed that the best way to lessen the risk of a widespread pandemic in the U.S. is to maintain heightened sanitary measures and remain vigilant of global patterns as the virus spreads to other regions.

Human contraction of the H5N1 virus is believed to stem from contact with wild waterfowl who act as carriers of the virus. Domesticated poultry tend to be much more susceptible to the virus and can contract it from contact with waterfowl. Humans can contract the virus through contact with saliva, nasal excretions, and feces of infected birds. The virus has originated and spread so rapidly in southeast Asia due to crowded conditions where humans and poultry tend to live in close proximity to one another. This provides the virus with ideal conditions to mutate and infect the human population. Furthermore, migratory birds that carry the virus can consequently spread the virus to distant regions.

With new outbreaks being reported throughout Europe, it becomes more likely that the avian flu will reach the Americas and become a great concern to the United States. Although widespread use of vaccines will not be an option to combat the spread of the virus, preventative tactics being implemented by British officials can also be used by other countries in hope of containing outbreaks.