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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 disease.


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 Kong.


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 human.


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 the world.


Perhaps it won’t be a doomsday virus, but it has the potential to kill a lot of people in a very short time.


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