Avian Flu A Potential
Crisis Waiting To Happen
By James Donahue
We’ve been reading
a lot about avian influenza in recent years. A deadly strain of the virus just killed some 1,500 ostriches on two South African
farms and health officials there said they would have to destroy another 30,000 birds to head off a potential spread of the
Also in Vietnam,
at least one person and possibly three people just died of a deadly strain of the “bird flu” in the southern province of Hau Giang,
and eight more people are hospitalized with the disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) is investigating.
The type A strain of
the so-called “bird flu” occurs all over the world.
In Canada, an outbreak of avian flu in British Columbia earlier
this year ravaged thousands of birds on farms in the Fraser
Valley. High density chicken farming practices were blamed.
WHO warns that many Asian
countries are still at risk of a deadly strain of avian flu that has already infected millions of chickens and so far has
jumped to humans, killing 10 people. Other cases are suspected.
Avian flu has been a
problem for chicken, duck and geese farmers for at least a century, but it was only thought to infect birds. It wasn’t
until 1997 that the virus jumped the species barrier, causing six deaths and infecting 12 other people in Hong
In March, 1999, the virus,
by now identified as a viral H9N2 strain, returned, this time infecting two more people although there were no human deaths.
The Hong Kong epidemics
launched a massive slaughter of birds throughout the region as China
worked to head off the disease.
Two other strains of
the virus, identified as H5N1 and H7, also can spread to humans, according to WHO. A Dutch veterinarian working on a farm
infected with the H7 strain, came down with the disease in 2003 and died of pneumonia.
Other suspected cases
have hit humans in Indonesia.
The more virulent form
of avian flu brings sudden onset, a severe illness and rapid death. The mortality among chickens and other poultry can be
up to 100 percent. A report by WHO identifies 15 known subtypes of influenza virus that infect birds. Some of these strains
are believed to have mutated in recent years to a highly pathogenic form that now is beginning to jump to humans.
To date, it appears that
transmission from bird to human is very rare, and every human infected by this new mutated strain has contacted the disease
through direct exposure to infected chickens. There is no evidence that the disease has yet been transmitted from human to
But WHO warns that avian
flu has the potential to change, develop the potential of being a human transmittable disease, and become more severe than
the deadly Sars virus that emerged in Asia in 2003.
WHO also is concerned
that the virus has the potential to swap genes with a common flu virus, creating a lethal pathogen that could spread around
Perhaps it won’t
be a doomsday virus, but it has the potential to kill a lot of people in a very short time.