Maybe it’s because I’m way over here on the other side of the Atlantic (with a whole continent inbetween to boot!), but the current worry about bird flu in Europe isn’t keeping me up at night.
Standard disclaimer: I don’t know any better than your regular layman/woman about H5N1, other avian viruses, let alone virus biology.
So let’s have a look at what the experts have to say. The WHO has a clearly written FAQ on avian flu and its possible impact on humans.
For the scaremongers, the key worries are that:
- this H5N1 strain of bird flu causes a high rate of death in infected birds.
- the H5N1 strain was found in a few South-East Asian countries in 2003, but spread within 2 years north (e.g. Russia, Mongolia), east (e.g. Korea, Japan), and west (e.g. Turkey, Romania).
- when it infects humans (and it has done so very rarely for a virus so prevalent in bird stocks), it causes serious problems like pneumonia and multi-organ failure even in healthy people, and has a high rate of fatality. Compare this to the “regular” flu virus, which causes deaths mainly in the immunocompromised (e.g. the very young, old and ill).
- an infected person can pass it on to their immediate contacts (by means as yet undeterminted).
- most humans won’t have immunity to H5N1 because it’s a new strain; we haven’t had time to develop our own antibodies to it.
And now that you’re worried, here’s my feeble attempt to allay your fears:
- Although the H5N1 strain has been infecting birds since 2003, it hasn’t killed very many people in the countries that have infected birds.
- So far, the human-to-human infections have been through very close contact (although I don’t know if that’s because members of the same family are exposed to the same source of virus, e.g. bird droppings).
- Cases of human infection have been in people who live in close quarters with their livestock; there’s no evidence that meat and eggs we buy in the supermarket will cause infections. (I’m having chicken tonight…)
- The third hit (mutation of the virus into something that spreads easily between humans not in close contact) hasn’t happened yet.
- Umm, what with all the scaremongering, some governments have woken up and are putting in place measures that the WHO recommended a loooong time ago.
- Edit: And I’m reminded over in the comments on curious hamster’s blog that it’s very likely that should the virus cross species and become more transmissible between humans, it will lose pathogenicity (i.e. be less lethal).
As for drug and vaccine treatments, companies other than Roche are making generic versions of anti-viral drugs and there’s a promising ongoing vaccine trial in Hungary. My main worry is that with rich governments stockpiling anti-flu drugs (and mind you they work on regular flu, and have yet to be tested on H5N1), developing countries won’t get a look-in. But then again, a truly sensible government that has stockpiled these drugs can offer them to any country in immediate need of it with the knowledge that stopping the virus dead in its tracks elsewhere also stops it from entering your shores. This needs cooperation, and even better, a respected world body to coordinate matters. After the ridiculous failure of the US governing bodies (state and federal) to deal with the recent hurricanes, I wouldn’t want to wait for the richest nation in the world to get involved. Thank goodness the frontline countries are getting their act together. Hopefuly we have learned lessons from the SARS outbreak, and have learned to forgo national pride and *communicate* with each other.
I have hope for the human species surviving any possible pandemic yet…