Avian influenza, or bird flu as it is more commonly known, was discovered over a century ago in Italy and to date, there are several strains of the bird flu virus. Many of these strains have become deadly, particularly the H5 and H7 strains. The deadliest one to date, the H5N1 strain, has reportedly killed 70 people in Asia alone in the last two years. Many scientists believe that if proper action is not taken, bird flu has the potential to be the fourth major pandemic in the world.
Influenza has affected the lives of so many people, particularly in the 20th century. The Spanish Flu of 1918, Asian Flu of 1957 and Hong Kong Flu of 1968 killed at least 20 million people worldwide.
Bird flu can spread quickly since the bird flu virus is typically found in the intestines of migrant birds that travel great distances. Bird flu spreads when other birds, chickens or geese come in contact with an infected bird’s saliva, nasal secretions or feces. Birds fall ill and die within 48 hours of contracting the virus. Humans who interact with infected birds without proper protective gear are also at risk.
There are four reasons that scientists believe that bird flu could become a pandemic.
1. Many countries, specifically third world countries, do not have the proper facilities in place to take care of the bird flu problem. Without these facilities, there is a high possibility of the bird flu virus spreading.
2. No vaccine has been fully developed and tested to fight bird flu virus. Using amantadine and rimantadine, two drugs that are used to treat influenza, on those infected with the virus has not been successful. Even though research is underway, there is still no known cure for bird flu in humans. Should a pandemic happen, it will take at least four months to produce vaccines that can be distributed to people suffering from the disease.
3. The avian influenza virus affects birds and pigs. However, because the virus has different strains and they easily mutate, scientists fear the virus could evolve into something worse and affect humans directly. The virus could become airborne and be transmitted from one human to another.
4. People who work in farms and are in the poultry and livestock industry many not have the proper equipment and adequate protection against the disease.
A human who is possibly infected with bird flu could show symptoms similar to human influenza. A person with bird flu will experience fever, sore throat and muscle pains. Because of the similarity of symptoms between bird flu and human flu, a person with bird flu could be mistakenly diagnosed with human flu. However, advanced symptoms of bird flu include eye infections and respiratory problems, which could become life threatening.
In 1997, when an outbreak of bird flu occurred in Hong Kong, 18 people were infected and six were killed. As a quick response, Hong Kong’s entire poultry population, which was estimated at 1.5 million, was killed. Many believe that this rapid response to the bird flu outbreak was the best solution and helped avert it from becoming a pandemic.
In general, there is little risk of most people getting infected with bird flu since it requires close or direct interaction with infected birds or bird feces. Since the number of people that has been infected with the disease is still low and confined to a few children and adults, there is no serious cause of alarm yet. However, for those who have constant contact with birds, the risk becomes very high during outbreaks in local poultry
Because of the constant and rapid advances in technology today, in addition to lessons learned from past major pandemics, there is hope that bird flu will be prevented from becoming another global pandemic.