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Is the Avian Flu a Real Threat?

Flyways of migratory birds

llustration courtesy of Center for Desease Control and Prevention

According to Health Sciences’ Chair Robert Friis and Biological Sciences’ Assistant Professor Esteban Fernandez-Juricic, the avian flu should be treated as a real concern that could have serious implications. Each is quick to point out, however, that there are a lot of questions still left unanswered when it comes to this particular virus.

Avian influenza (commonly called bird flu) is an infection caused by bird flu viruses (H5N1), which occur naturally among birds. Wild birds carry the viruses, and may or may not get sick from them depending on the species. However, avian flu is very contagious among birds and can kill domesticated birds. If a human contracts the disease, the symptoms differ from a regular flu in that they are more acute and can lead to hospitalization, severe respiratory disease and high fever. With regular flu, the symptoms are debilitating and severe but usually dissipate, while bird flu symptoms last longer and the recovery is slower.

“There is the minority point of view that this is hype and not merited based on the information we have,” said Friis, “but the more frequent point of view, and the one I think we should take into account, is that it is an event that potentially could be very hazardous. The possibility exists that the virus could mutate and spread into the human population. But no one knows if it can jump (easily) from the avian population to the human population. At present, there have been no documented cases of the virus spreading from one person to another.”

“The virus has to mutate into a form which can be transmitted from human to human,” concurred Fernandez-Juricic. “The transmission we have seen from bird to human is with people who work closely with birds. The first few cases have been in third-world countries. One reason is their health care systems; the other is cultural. It is accepted in some cultures to live with chickens in the same room. So, if a chicken has bird flu and they are in close proximity, a person could possibly catch it.”

Three pandemics occurred during the 20th century – in 1918, 1957 and 1968. According to Fernandez-Juricic, the Spanish Flu in 1918 was a type of bird flu, so there is a precedent of a virus mutating into a form which can be transmitted from human to human. Just what are the chances?

“We don’t know,” he said. “Some theoretical studies with predictive models show that the chances are high, while others show lower estimates. There are a lot of unknowns here and that is why we have to be very careful with the information given to the public. Using the word ‘pandemic,’ you have to be careful. It’s more how can we contain an outbreak biologically and also socially. The thing we need to keep in mind is that it is not a one-solution problem.”

“That’s just it, no one knows the answer,” said Friis as to how the virus may mutate and spread. “This particular flu seems to track the passive migratory birds and may appear in North America as early as this summer. The possibility of having outbreaks among domestic birds is a realistic scenario. If it happens, the effects could be severe for society, so that is why we need to be prepared for it. We really need to increase public awareness.”

Friis, president of the Southern California Public Health Association, attended the “California-Los Angeles Joint Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Summit” in late March. That event, attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and numerous high-ranking health officials from both state and national levels, looked at preparedness from different perspectives and, more specifically, how the federal, state and Los Angeles County governments are readying themselves in case there is an avian flu outbreak.

What can you do to protect yourself? There are a number of precautions individuals can take to lessen their chances of contracting and/or passing along not just the avian flu virus, but viral infections in general. For example, simple, inexpensive and documented measures such as hand washing and covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough can help to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. It is also helpful to stay home when you are sick to avoid exposing fellow workers or classmates.

“We need many strategies in place at the same time to minimize any kind of outbreak,” said Fernandez-Juricic. “From my perspective, every little thing helps. Anything we try to do to minimize the spread of the normal flu or cold applies to this as well. For instance, washing hands after going to the bathroom and covering the mouth when coughing. But, most importantly, we need to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, which are regularly updated.”

“I think a lot of this has to be done at the individual level, such as how an individual family responds to an outbreak,” added Friis, relating it to something similar to earthquake preparedness. “Have a kind of personal plan. You should have an emergency plan for your family or household. Have a supply of food and water on hand and have a communications plan.”

For more information/updates on the avian flu, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.

NOTE: Friis’ recently-released book Essentials of Environmental Health, includes a case study titled “Human Infections with Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Viruses” which discusses reported outbreaks in 12 countries.