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Bird Flu Is Back – Should We Be Worried?

By James Donahue

When the H5N1 virus broke out among poultry farmers in China and Vietnam in 2003 and began spreading around the world there was alarm that this deadly disease might trigger a global pandemic.

Dubbed "bird flu" by the media, this virus proved to be a killer. While only a few hundred people came down with this disease, 60 percent of them died from it. It was determined that the disease was first being transmitted only among birds, researchers discovered that the virus was mutating and there were cases where H5N1 appeared to have been passed from human to human.

Since it was largely an avian disease, there was special concern that migrating birds would spread it quickly around the world during seasonal changes.

For a while, the bird flu virus was considered the world’s worst pandemic threat. Consequently billions of dollars were spent by an estimated 12 companies to develop an effective influenza vaccine that might head-off this deadly bug before it got out of control.

Manufacturing an effective vaccine proved highly difficult because of the speed at which this strange virus was mutating. In 2006 the Roche AG company began production of Tamiflu, a drug it claimed would be effective in staving off the effects of not only the bird flu, but all other varieties of influenza. The stuff flew off the shelves of pharmacies around the world. It has since been found that Tamiflu had little effect whatsoever at treating this disease.

In the meantime cases of the H5N1 virus began to diminish. By 2009 WHO reported a total of only 447 human cases that resulted in the deaths of 263. While this form of bird flu is still out there, with cases appearing on occasion, the world concern about a potential pandemic has all but disappeared.

The H5N1 scare was quickly overshadowed by a second and even more deadly virus that gained the nickname SARS. This bug, an even more dangerous viral respiratory disease, was found to have originated in bats that spread it through contact with farm animals being sold for meat at open markets. And it jumped species, from animal to humans. Thus from 2002 when SARS first appeared to July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in South China and 36 other countries nearly became a pandemic. The World Health Organization reported 8,273 cases of SARS with 775 deaths worldwide. It also remains active among the world diseases.

And now a new strain of avian flu has appeared in China. This one is called H7N9, and it has been attacking and killing bird handlers at an even faster rate than the original bird flu did when it first appeared.

The scary thing about H7N9 is that it is quickly passed among the birds, but the birds do not appear sick. They are merely carriers. And the birds are passing the disease on to the farmers who grow and care for the birds that go to market.

Not only this, but researchers say this new virus has already mutated so it can more easily affect other animals, like pigs, which could serve as hosts spreading the virus among humans. Some wonder if the strange rash of thousands of dead pigs observed floating down the Huangpu River wasn’t in some way connected with this new virus.

To date, only 13 humans have died from this new virus. All were people who handled birds that contacted the H7N9 virus. It is too early to know if this influenza virus will turn into the global pandemic that was feared with the H5N1 virus a decade ago. Because it can be spread among migrating birds, because it does not make birds sick to is harder to detect, and because viruses have a way of mutating rapidly, the potential for something very bad exists here.

Yes, we should all be worried.