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In the News
Last Updated: 11/03/2005
To Panic or not to Panic: The Skinny on Avian Flu
Benjamin Hess

By now, we’ve all heard about the avian flu. The media carries almost non-stop coverage of every new possible case, every statement by a public official or doctor, and every step taken (or not taken) by governments and organizations around the world to prepare for a possible epidemic. In late September 2005, David Nabarro, the official in charge of coordinating the United Nations’ response to avian flu, generated a global scare by estimating that up to 150 million people could die from a bird flu epidemic. The concern among the general population is so great that the number of people getting flu vaccines in countries throughout the world has soared. The pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG has withheld new shipments of its flu-fighting antibiotic Tamiflu in Germany and the United States in order to prevent customers from hoarding the drug and exhausting supplies, which would make Tamiflu unavailable to people who become infected with the flu. This announcement came after consumers had wiped the shelves clean upon hearing that Tamiflu can lessen the effects of the avian flu if used within the first two days of infection.

So everyone’s scared. But what is the avian flu? And what’s the big deal? Here is a guide to what it is, and what experts are saying about it.

What is avian flu? The avian flu is a contagious virus that can be fatal. The most dangerous strain is the H5N1 virus, which has killed over 60 people since 2003. The virus is carried by migratory birds, as well as domestic ones such as chickens.

What are the symptoms? The symptoms can range from the normal ones associated with a common flu (muscular pains, sore throat, fever, and cough) to more severe ones, such as severe breathing problems and pneumonia.

Will a flu vaccine protect me from the avian flu? No. There is no vaccine against the H5N1 virus. However, some experts recommend getting a common flu vaccine anyways. They argue that a person suffering from a seasonal flu is more susceptible to becoming infected with the avian flu.

How can I get infected? Currently, unless you come into close contact with a sick bird or a surface directly contaminated by the virus, you are safe. You cannot become infected by eating cooked chickens. In other words, the ones most likely to get sick are people who work on poultry farms or in a function that brings them into direct contact with infected birds.

If I can only get infected by a sick bird, then what is the big deal? Health experts worry that the virus, which currently is only transmitted by birds, could mutate into one that could be passed from human to human. This could occur if a person with the flu becomes infected with the avian flu virus. The two viruses could merge to create a new strain that would be transmitted between humans. Another fear is that pigs, which are highly susceptible to human and bird flu viruses, could serve as a “mixing vessel” that would produce a new virus from the union of the avian and human strains. Since the avian flu is a new virus, humans do not have the defenses built up to protect themselves. Furthermore, it is highly contagious and thus could spread around the world easily.

What steps are being taken to prevent this from happening? The World Health Organization is currently working with national governments, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and public health experts to prevent outbreaks of avian flu and to ensure that the world is prepared for the moment when the virus does mutate into one capable of being transmitted by humans. According to an article in Tiempos del Mundo (“La peligrosa gripe aviaria,” October 20, 2005), this has involved exterminating over 140 million chickens in 11 countries since 2003, which has led to losses totaling over $15 billion for the Asian poultry industry. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are working to prepare a vaccine. They are also stepping up production of antiviral drugs that can treat the virus, but so far the number of available doses would cover less than five percent of the world’s population, and the great majority of the beneficiaries would be from rich countries. Many governments are also working on plans to control an epidemic, but much of the developing world has been unable to do so because of a lack of resources.

Although the avian flu originated in Asia, infected migratory birds have spread it westward to Eastern Europe, where cases have been reported in Russia, Romania, and Turkey. One of the greatest fears is that migratory birds may spread the disease to Africa, where the poultry industry uses far fewer sanitary controls and governments have fewer resources to detect and fight a possible outbreak. The lack of sanitation also means that conditions in Africa would be much more favorable for the virus to mutate into one that could be directly transmitted between humans.

Most experts agree that, sooner or later, the avian flu will mutate. It seems that every forty years or so, a major flu pandemic occurs. The epidemic in 1918 in Spain killed 50 million people. The last one, in Hong Kong, occurred in 1968, which means that the world is almost due for another. The danger today is that globalization has connected the world in such a way that an outbreak in Asia or anywhere else could easily spread to every other continent within hours through unsuspecting travelers carrying the virus with them on flights.

Until that occurs, people should pressure their governments to take the appropriate measures to prepare for a possible outbreak. Other than that, all that can be done is to remain calm, stay informed, and hope for the best. Although you may not want to visit Asian poultry farms anytime soon.

For more information on the avian flu, please visit the following sources:

The United States Health and Human Services Department:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

World Health Organization:

Benjamin Hess is a Master’s candidate in International Peace Studies at the University for Peace.