Health: Bird Flu

Akanksha Vaidya Jan 21, 2008

We tend to take the term “common cold” quite literally. A sneeze is usually dismissed with no more than a “bless you” and a tissue.

However, this simple sneeze may not be as harmless as we may believe.

Avian influenza or “bird flu,” as it is more commonly known, also starts off with a simple sneeze — leading to something far worse than the common cold.

The bird flu has recently become a major cause of death in Southeast Asia. According to a New Delhi Television Limited press release, the deadly disease is currently propagating at an alarmingly increasing rate in West Bengal, India. Should the disease continue to spread like wildfire, it will soon reach the level of a pandemic.

The H5N1 virus, which is known to cause bird flu in humans, is one of a family of avian influenza viruses. These viruses reside in the intestines of wild birds, such as wild ducks and swans. Wild birds are an ideal host for the H5N1 virus due to their environmental and migration logistics.

While the viruses do not normally harm the wild birds they reside in, they render domestic birds like chickens and turkeys extremely sick.

Infected birds contain the virus in their saliva and excreta, and birds that come in contact with such saliva or excreta also contract the disease. Thus, among domestic fowl, the disease is not only fatal but highly contagious.

H5N1 drew attention because of its growing transmission to human beings.

H5N1 contradicted the earlier belief that avian influenza only affected birds. The disease was first reported to attack humans in 1997 in Hong Kong. A total of 18 cases were reported, six of which were fatal.

According to a Reuters press release, there are 118 reported cases to date in Indonesia, the nation hit hardest by the disease. Voice of America News reported 97 of those to be fatal. “The U.S. government has been stockpiling a pre-pandemic vaccine,” said Anita Barkin, Director of Health Services.

The pre-pandemic vaccine has been made from the genetic material of viruses (such as H5N1) that are currently circulating.
The difficulty with producing such vaccines is that the virus can mutate and form a new strain, thus rendering previously produced vaccines useless.

A similar problem is encountered while administering anti-virals to affected patients.

“The concern is that if we use anti-virals like Tamiflu to treat a large number of patients, resistant strains of the virus could occur and the anti-virals would no longer be effective. What might end up being effective in the end is a cocktail of anti-virals,” said Barkin.

Having said that, statistics that indicate that the bird flu is localized to East Asia can be rather misleading. In fact, in 2006 the H5N1 virus was detected in wild swans in Michigan. The globalization of the disease is a result of migratory birds carrying the disease with them to different parts of the world.

Although bird flu is contagious among the bird species, it does not spread from one human being to another.

“The cases that have occurred today have occurred in places where [people] have had close contact with infected birds or have been involved in the butchering of birds and the handling of raw meat,” she said. Thoroughly- cooked meat is safe to eat and handle, so it is important to make sure that meat isn’t raw or partially cooked before consumption, Barkin said.

In addition to watching out for infected animals or undercooked meat, regular health check-ups could prove to be lifesavers. It doesn’t matter where you live — finding out the reason behind that sneeze could save your life.