Bird Flu Alarm

Understanding Avian Influenza



History and epidemiology. Influenza viruses are normally highly species-specific, meaning that viruses that infect an individual species (humans, certain species of birds, pigs, horses, and seals) stay "true" to that species, and only rarely spill over to cause infection in other species. Since 1959, instances of human infection with an avian influenza virus have occurred on only 10 occasions. Of the hundreds of strains of avian influenza A viruses, only four are known to have caused human infections: H5N1, H7N3, H7N7, and H9N2. In general, human infection with these viruses has resulted in mild symptoms and very little severe illness, with one notable exception: the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus.

Of all influenza viruses that circulate in birds, the H5N1 virus is of greatest present concern for human health for two main reasons. First, the H5N1 virus has caused by far the greatest number of human cases of very severe disease and the greatest number of deaths. It has crossed the species barrier to infect humans on at least three occasions in recent years: in Hong Kong in 1997 (18 cases with six deaths), in Hong Kong in 2003 (two cases with one death) and in the current outbreaks that began in December 2003 and were first recognized in January 2004.

A second implication for human health, of far greater concern, is the risk that the H5N1 virus ? if given enough opportunities ? will develop the characteristics it needs to start another influenza pandemic. The virus has met all prerequisites for the start of a pandemic save one: an ability to spread efficiently and sustainably among humans. While H5N1 is presently the virus of greatest concern, the possibility that other avian influenza viruses, known to infect humans, might cause a pandemic cannot be ruled out.

During the first documented outbreak of human infections with H5N1, which occurred in Hong Kong in 1997, the 18 human cases coincided with an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, caused by a virtually identical virus, in poultry farms and live markets. Extensive studies of the human cases determined that direct contact with diseased poultry was the source of infection. Studies carried out in family members and social contacts of patients, health workers engaged in their care, and poultry cullers found very limited, if any, evidence of spread of the virus from one person to another. Human infections ceased following the rapid destruction ? within three days ? of Hong Kong's entire poultry population, estimated at around 1.5 million birds. Some experts believe that that drastic action may have averted a pandemic.

All evidence to date indicates that close contact with dead or sick birds is the principal source of human infection with the H5N1 virus. Especially risky behaviours identified include the slaughtering, defeathering, butchering and preparation for consumption of infected birds. In a few cases, exposure to chicken faeces when children played in an area frequented by free-ranging poultry is thought to have been the source of infection. Swimming in water bodies where the carcasses of dead infected birds have been discarded or which may have been contaminated by faeces from infected ducks or other birds might be another source of exposure. In some cases, investigations have been unable to identify a plausible exposure source, suggesting that some as yet unknown environmental factor, involving contamination with the virus, may be implicated in a small number of cases. Some explanations that have been put forward include a possible role of peri-domestic birds, such as pigeons, or the use of untreated bird faeces as fertilizer.

At present, H5N1 avian influenza remains largely a disease of birds. The species barrier is significant: the virus does not easily cross from birds to infect humans. Despite the infection of tens of millions of poultry over large geographical areas for more than two years, fewer than 200 human cases have been laboratory confirmed. For unknown reasons, most cases have occurred in rural and periurban households where small flocks of poultry are kept. Again for unknown reasons, very few cases have been detected in presumed high-risk groups, such as commercial poultry workers, workers at live poultry markets, cullers, veterinarians, and health staff caring for patients without adequate protective equipment. Also lacking is an explanation for the puzzling concentration of cases in previously healthy children and young adults. Research is urgently needed to better define the exposure circumstances, behaviours, and possible genetic or immunological factors that might enhance the likelihood of human infection.

Assessment of possible cases. Investigations of all the most recently confirmed human cases, in China, Indonesia, and Turkey, have identified direct contact with infected birds as the most likely source of exposure. When assessing possible cases, the level of clinical suspicion should be heightened for persons showing influenza-like illness, especially with fever and symptoms in the lower respiratory tract, who have a history of close contact with birds in an area where confirmed outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza are occurring. Exposure to an environment that may have been contaminated by faeces from infected birds is a second, though less common, source of human infection. To date, not all human cases have arisen from exposure to dead or visibly ill domestic birds. Research published in 2005 has shown that domestic ducks can excrete large quantities of highly pathogenic virus without showing signs of illness. A history of poultry consumption in an affected country is not a risk factor, provided the food was thoroughly cooked and the person was not involved in food preparation. As no efficient human-to-human transmission of the virus is known to be occurring anywhere, simply travelling to a country with ongoing outbreaks in poultry or sporadic human cases does not place a traveller at enhanced risk of infection, provided the person did not visit live or "wet" poultry markets, farms, or other environments where exposure to diseased birds may have occurred.

Clinical features 1. In many patients, the disease caused by the H5N1 virus follows an unusually aggressive clinical course, with rapid deterioration and high fatality. Like most emerging disease, H5N1 influenza in humans is poorly understood. Clinical data from cases in 1997 and the current outbreak are beginning to provide a picture of the clinical features of disease, but much remains to be learned. Moreover, the current picture could change given the propensity of this virus to mutate rapidly and unpredictably.

The incubation period for H5N1 avian influenza may be longer than that for normal seasonal influenza, which is around 2 to 3 days. Current data for H5N1 infection indicate an incubation period ranging from 2 to 8 days and possibly as long as 17 days. However, the possibility of multiple exposure to the virus makes it difficult to define the incubation period precisely. WHO currently recommends that an incubation period of 7 days be used for field investigations and the monitoring of patient contacts.

Initial symptoms include a high fever, usually with a temperature higher than 38oC, and influenza-like symptoms. Diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain, chest pain, and bleeding from the nose and gums have also been reported as early symptoms in some patients.

Watery diarrhoea without blood appears to be more common in H5N1 avian influenza than in normal seasonal influenza. The spectrum of clinical symptoms may, however, be broader, and not all confirmed patients have presented with respiratory symptoms. In two patients from southern Viet Nam, the clinical diagnosis was acute encephalitis; neither patient had respiratory symptoms at presentation. In another case, from Thailand, the patient presented with fever and diarrhoea, but no respiratory symptoms. All three patients had a recent history of direct exposure to infected poultry.

One feature seen in many patients is the development of manifestations in the lower respiratory tract early in the illness. Many patients have symptoms in the lower respiratory tract when they first seek treatment. On present evidence, difficulty in breathing develops around 5 days following the first symptoms. Respiratory distress, a hoarse voice, and a crackling sound when inhaling are commonly seen. Sputum production is variable and sometimes bloody. Most recently, blood-tinted respiratory secretions have been observed in Turkey. Almost all patients develop pneumonia. During the Hong Kong outbreak, all severely ill patients had primary viral pneumonia, which did not respond to antibiotics. Limited data on patients in the current outbreak indicate the presence of a primary viral pneumonia in H5N1, usually without microbiological evidence of bacterial supra-infection at presentation. Turkish clinicians have also reported pneumonia as a consistent feature in severe cases; as elsewhere, these patients did not respond to treatment with antibiotics.

In patients infected with the H5N1 virus, clinical deterioration is rapid. In Thailand, the time between onset of illness to the development of acute respiratory distress was around 6 days, with a range of 4 to 13 days. In severe cases in Turkey, clinicians have observed respiratory failure 3 to 5 days after symptom onset. Another common feature is multiorgan dysfunction, notably involving the kidney and heart. Common laboratory abnormalities include lymphopenia, leukopenia, elevated aminotransferases, and mild-to-moderate thrombocytopenia with some instances of disseminated intravascular coagulation.

Limited evidence suggests that some antiviral drugs, notably oseltamivir (commercially known as Tamiflu), can reduce the duration of viral replication and improve prospects of survival, provided they are administered within 48 hours following symptom onset. However, prior to the outbreak in Turkey, most patients have been detected and treated late in the course of illness. For this reason, clinical data on the effectiveness of oseltamivir are limited. Moreover, oseltamivir and other antiviral drugs were developed for the treatment and prophylaxis of seasonal influenza, which is a less severe disease associated with less prolonged viral replication. Recommendations on the optimum dose and duration of treatment for H5N1 avian influenza, also in children, need to undergo urgent review, and this is being undertaken by WHO.

In suspected cases, oseltamivir should be prescribed as soon as possible (ideally, within 48 hours following symptom onset) to maximize its therapeutic benefits. However, given the significant mortality currently associated with H5N1 infection and evidence of prolonged viral replication in this disease, administration of the drug should also be considered in patients presenting later in the course of illness.

Currently recommended doses of oseltamivir for the treatment of influenza are contained in the product information at the manufacturer's web site. The recommended dose of oseltamivir for the treatment of influenza, in adults and adolescents 13 years of age and older, is 150 mg per day, given as 75 mg twice a day for 5 days. Oseltamivir is not indicated for the treatment of children younger than 1 year of age.

As the duration of viral replication may be prolonged in cases of H5N1 infection, clinicians should consider increasing the duration of treatment to 7 to 10 days in patients who are not showing a clinical response. In cases of severe infection with the H5N1 virus, clinicians may need to consider increasing the recommended daily dose or the duration of treatment, keeping in mind that doses above 300 mg per day are associated with increased side effects. For all treated patients, consideration should be given to taking serial clinical samples for later assay to monitor changes in viral load, to assess drug susceptibility, and to assess drug levels. These samples should be taken only in the presence of appropriate measures for infection control.

In severely ill H5N1 patients or in H5N1 patients with severe gastrointestinal symptoms, drug absorption may be impaired. This possibility should be considered when managing these patients.