Bird Flu Alarm

Understanding Avian Influenza

How serious is the bird flu?

Bird flu is extremely serious.  As of July, 2006, there were 230 confirmed cases of human infections with 133 deaths (56%).   Over 60 countries have confirmed H5N1 infection in birds, and 10 have confirmed human infections.   Between December 2003 and April 2006 human infections peaked during the cooler winter and spring months in the northern hemisphere.

These numbers, however, are just the "tip of the iceberg." The number of confirmed human infections and deaths is merely the "tip of the iceberg" because of the difficulty in obtaining a confirmation.  The process is fraught with difficulties.

쨌         Most infections to date have been in rural areas where there are very few medical facilities, and few people are
taken to any kind of healthcare facility when taken ill because of the cost involved and transportation difficulties.
쨌         Very few people, including medical doctors, know how to recognize the symptoms of H5N1 avian flu in either industrial or rural societies.  
쨌         If a doctor in a rural area suspects bird flu symptoms, a blood draw must be taken and shipped to one of only 200 qualified labs internationally.  This requires that four difficult conditions be met:

o       There must be adequate equipment to draw, pack, and ship a blood sample.
o       There must be an adequate transportation system for shipping the sample to a qualified lab.
o       The rural staff must have access to the list of qualified labs.
o       There must be funds available to pay for the expenses involved.

While the lab results do confirm whether a person is infected with H5N1, these results make absolutely no difference in the course of treatment because of the length of time it takes to obtain the results.  Normally a lab needs approximately 14 days to produce results.  The median time from onset of an infection until death is 9 days.  By the end of the 14 days the patient is either dead or on the way to recovery. The rate of death in human H5N1 cases is 56%.

The effects of a confirmed case, either human or in bird or poultry populations, is devastating for rural farmers.  Worldwide, officials enter the infected areas to cull (kill) the local produce in an effort to contain the infection.  Most countries are not able to compensate the farmers or compensation is very small.  For a rural farmer this can lead to extreme hardship, if not outright destitution.   Culling decreases the likelihood of future reporting.  Many countries note the apparent indifference of farmers to bird flu without taking into consideration the backlash these farmers suffer if they do, in fact, report and results are confirmed.

Finally, it is becoming increasingly apparent that journalists are becoming reluctant to enter areas infected by bird flu.


Understanding Avian Influenza