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Measuring the Bird Flu Threat

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
November 21, 2006


Almost a decade after the first outbreak of H5N1 (PDF), a highly pathogenic form of avian influenza, researchers and international health organizations continue monitoring the disease as a global health threat. As this new Backgrounder explains, the disease commonly known as “bird flu” already has wreaked economic and animal health havoc, killing hundreds of millions of chickens and spreading beyond its origins in Southeast Asia to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The human case count remains relatively low at 258, although 2006 has been the deadliest year on record thus far with seventy-five deaths. Scientists and policymakers remain concerned that the virus, capable of spreading from infected birds to humans, could become a lethal pandemic if it evolves to allow for easy human-to-human transmission. 

A recent discovery provided some hope: Researchers in the United States and Japan identified two genetic factors missing in the current strain that would allow for the virus to infect humans (ABC). Looking for these two genetic features in evolving strains could be helpful for developing future vaccines. Researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Boulder have also recently created a gene test capable of quickly recognizing flu strains, including H5N1.

However, experts say vaccination and treatment plans in many countries do not take into account the likely shortage of medical resources in the case of a pandemic, as explained in this study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Last summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it had enough vaccine on hand to immunize four million people, but the vaccine’s short shelf life could cut into that count (AP). Even if enough resources were available, the efficacy of treatment remains uncertain. The antiviral medicine Tamiflu, stockpiled in the United States for treatment in the case of an outbreak, has proven resistant to some strains of avian flu, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

In a new podcast, Laurie Garrett, CFR senior fellow for global health, says she does not believe the global community has “a toolkit that can stop this virus from circulating if it makes the appropriate set of mutations.” But she also says the global community is far more prepared than it was two years ago to maintain order and handle equitable treatment distribution in the event of a pandemic. In September 2005, the Bush administration announced the launch of the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza. Earlier this year, several countries and international organizations met in Beijing and pledged $1.9 billion to combat the spread (RFE/RL) of bird flu. Vietnam, a country with high human case counts where millions of chickens were culled to prevent the disease’s spread, has made headway over the past year in controlling outbreaks (CIDRAP). And China signaled its willingness to cooperate in fighting infectious disease in its decision to nominate Margaret Chan to lead the World Health Organization. Chan, an infectious disease expert from Hong Kong, was highly critical of Beijing’s attempts to cover up (China's The Standard) the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and instrumental in controlling Hong Kong’s avian flu outbreak in 1997.

But Garrett says more research and international cooperation are necessary. “Are we where we should be? No. We’re a long ways away and I don’t think there’s anyone in any government who would disagree with that statement.” And as winter comes, bringing with it the migration of potentially infected wild aquatic birds, fears grow over new bird flu outbreaks (BBC). The World Health Organization offers further reading about avian flu, including maps of which countries have experienced outbreaks.

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