Bird Flu Alarm

Understanding Avian Influenza

Why so much concern about the current outbreaks?

Public health officials are alarmed by the unprecedented outbreaks in poultry for several reasons. First, most ?but not all ?of the major outbreaks recently reported in Asia have been caused by the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain. There is mounting evidence that this strain has a unique capacity to jump the species barrier and cause severe disease, with high mortality, in humans.

A second and even greater concern is the possibility that the present situation could give rise to another influenza pandemic in humans. Scientists know that avian and human influenza viruses can exchange genes when a person is simultaneously infected with viruses from both species. This process of gene swapping inside the human body can give rise to a completely new subtype of the influenza virus to which few, if any, humans would have natural immunity. Moreover, existing vaccines, which are developed each year to match presently circulating strains and protect humans during seasonal epidemics, would not be effective against a completely new influenza virus.

If the new virus contains sufficient human genes, transmission directly from one person to another (instead of from birds to humans only) can occur. When this happens, the conditions for the start of a new influenza pandemic will have been met. Most alarming would be a situation in which person-to-person transmission resulted in successive generations of severe disease with high mortality.

This was the situation during the great influenza pandemic of 1918?919, when a completely new influenza virus subtype emerged and spread around the globe, in around 4 to 6 months. Several waves of infection occurred over 2 years, killing an estimated 40?0 million persons.

Understanding Avian Influenza