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Bird Flu: What's the Risk?

By now everyone has heard about H5N1 bird flu, the virus that has been killing birds and some people in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The total number of people infected and killed so far is pretty low. The latest bird flu case report from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows a total of 224 human cases with 127 deaths over the past three years. A small figure but with a very high death rate. The risk from bird flu is extremely serious. Infectious disease experts fear that the disease could mutate and acquire the ability the transmit easily from person to person. This is called human-to-human transmission or H2H. The serious threat raised by H5N1 is why media outlets are closely falling the developments of the disease. It is also why the WHO has been rating the disease's progress using Pandemic Alert phases. Currently, we are at level 3 with H5N1.

One reason scientists believe bird flu could mutate and become a worldwide pandemic is that it has happened before. In 1918 a deadly influenza outbreak killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. It killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. in a very short time period. If a similar event were to happen today not only would millions of Americans be killed but commerce, transportation and public services could shut down as many are killed or sickened by the disease. Hospitals would be quickly overwhelmed. This is what the experts fear most: a repeat of 1918. An outbreak like this could also have secondary problems like people dying from food shortages and even anarchy in some countries. The best book written about the 1918 influenza outbreak is The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History by John M. Barry.:
Doctors were completely unable to stop or slow its spread; the killer flu eventually traveled to the general population and worked its way from East to West across the United States. The influenza spread so fast that hospitals and morgues were quickly overrun. People were often forced to live with the dead bodies of family members because there were so many dead and dying that the health system and city morgues were completely overwhelmed. Many health workers were also sick and dying themselves. Coffins quickly became unavailable and bodies were stacked up on porches and next to houses. Symptoms of the disease were terrifying and violent: incredible pain, blood pouring from noses and eyes, intense fever, headache, weakness, body aches and delirium. People often died after gasping for breath for hours trying to clear a red, frothy liquid from their lungs. Mayors in cities lied to their citizens and said the plague would not come. But it came and even during the epidemic many newspapers reported that there was no cause for alarm or told people the virus had peaked when it had not. In 1918, influenza was a killing machine that raged from coast to coast, killing over 600,000 Americans. In October, 1918 influenza killed 195,000 Americans in a single month.
No one really knows for sure what is going to happen. It is possible that H5N1 may never mutate. It is possible that it could mutate and H2H transmissions could begin but we are able to stop it with aggressive quarantines. It also possible that H2H transmissions will start and we will not be able to stop it and the disease will spread worldwide killing hundreds of millions of people. That is the greatest risk from bird flu.

Posted on May 31, 2006

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