Web Zap*Germs Archive

October 09, 2005

Bird Flu Spreading to Europe and New Species

Update 11 Oct 2005: USA Today's front page covered the same news, with evidence that the recent hurricane devastation has made it easier to consider a viral natural disaster:
Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt was visiting hurricane emergency shelters after Katrina and Rita when it hit him just how bad a flu pandemic could be. “What if it weren't just New Orleans” struck by catastrophe, Leavitt recalls thinking. “What if it were Seattle, San Diego, Corpus Christi, Denver, Chicago, New York? Make your own list.”

Unlike a hurricane that's confined to a specific area over a short time, a pandemic flu strikes everywhere and can last a year or more, says Leavitt, who left Saturday on a fact-finding trip to flu-stricken regions of Southeast Asia. Waves of illness would shutter schools and businesses, swamp hospitals and send tens of thousands to overflow medical shelters and early graves.

“The big lesson I learned from Hurricane Katrina is that we have to be thinking about the unthinkable,” Leavitt says, “because sometimes the unthinkable happens.”

Lots of news this past week about bird flu, as everyone seems to be catching on to the potential for a worldwide pandemic -- but unsure whether the current H5N1 disease has the potential to mutate in such a way as to become terribly infectious.

TIME has helpfully gathered and analyzed all the latest information, unhelpfully titled, "How Scared Should We Be?"

Last year, the H5N1 avian flu was confined to Asian countries, which killed or vaccinated millions of birds. A small number of people who were infected died. Now the disease -- carried by migrating birds -- is slowly spreading across Europe, and is now reported in Romania.

Epidemiologists say that pandemics swept the world about every 30 years during the 20th century, with the last one coming in 1968. Dr Anthony S. Fauci of NIAID was quoted by the NYT as saying, "just on the basis of [viral] evolution, of how things go, we're overdue."

The same NYT analysis by Denise Grady notes that H5N1 is unusual in that it's spreading to a number of different animal species.
Once known to infect chickens, ducks and the occasional person, the virus is now found in a wide range of birds and has infected cats.

"It killed tigers at the Bangkok zoo, which is quite remarkable because flu is not traditionally a big problem for cats," Dr. [Andrew T.] Pavia [of the Infectious Diseases Society of America] said.

It has also infected pigs, which in the past have been a vehicle to carry viruses from birds to humans.

"We should be worried but not panicked," Dr. Pavia said.
Regarding the practical -- what we can actually do ourselves -- there's talk of stockpiling lots of vaccine. It's said the quarantines won't work if the virus breaks out among humans, as people are contagious before they even appear sick. TIME talks of a "far more realistic" option:
isolation and perhaps some kinds of movement restriction. Sick people, either at home or in hospitals, would be kept apart from healthy people. Caregivers would need to use masks, if there were enough of them, and other barriers to prevent infection. For the rest of the population, large gatherings might be discouraged. Schools, malls, churches and sports events might temporarily shut down--although even that would be of questionable effectiveness.


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