Home / Weekly BlogScan: H5N1 and Avian Flu Fears

Weekly BlogScan: H5N1 and Avian Flu Fears

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Avian flu, bird flu, H5N1 flu virus: these are all hot-words creeping up in the public attention right now. This is not unusual for the fall months, the time of year when we prepare to combat the latest variant of influenza virus to come down the pike (or to jump the Pacific from Asia).

It is unusual this year, with so much else going on to claim our attention.

Recently, these background fears were brought to the forefront with the announcement by Gina Kolata in a New York Times Health article that research had revealed the source of the 1918 flu pandemic (in which 50 million people died): an avian infection that had jumped to directly to humans. RatcliffeBlog cites a Wall Street Journal article about this revelation, published in Nature:

The findings by Dr. Taubenberger and his team of researchers… follow a nine-year effort to decode the 1918 strain by sequencing its eight genes. The research concluded that the pandemic flu outbreak was most likely caused by an avian virus. The scientists also discovered 10 mutations that distinguish the 1918 virus from avian bugs, suggesting changes that the virus made to adapt to a human host, they said. They also noted that some of those mutations are also present in the currently circulating H5N1 virus, suggesting it could make the jump to humans in a similarly rapid and alarming way.

Web-journalism guru Crawford Killian also writes H5N1, a blog devoted to news about this flu variant and its dangers. He says, “I suspect we’re not very far from the 1918 faith in holy medals as ways to stave off disease.” In a meta-commentary on his Writing for the Web blog, Killian notes,

ABC News ran a segment on Primetime about avian flu. I’d even found an item on the Web about it, and posted the news. But I had no idea that the program would trigger a remarkable spike in my traffic. From routine traffic of 550 hits per 24 hours, H5N1 was suddenly logging four or five times that. Eventually I realized what was happening, and saw traffic peak, a day or so later, at a little over 6000 hits/24 hours… This was clearly due to viewers of one program, who promptly booted their computers, Googled “h5n1,” and found my site as #2 out of close to two million pages.

At Effect Measure, the Editors sign themselves “Revere.” (Paul Revere was a member of the first local Board of Health in the United States, in Boston, 1799.) They note that attention to bird flu has ratcheted up in the media.

Without Hurricane Katrina we’d probably be in the Persistent Vegetative State that characterized the previous five years of the Bush Administration regarding any threats not part of the Global War on Terrorism message. But despite the new attention, it is doubtful whether either the Administration or Congress will make much difference. The Senate has appropriated almost $4 billion in new bird flu funds… Most of it, however, is for a big Tamiflu buy, not the wisest use, especially when the US is so far down the client list it won’t get the new supply for some time.

Spence at Future Health Solutions reports that thousands of turkeys in NW Turkey have been destroyed due to suspicions of their harboring the H5N1 flu variant. Bulgaria will watch migratory bird flocks to detect possible transmission of flu to domestic birds. And Romania has

…identified three cases of birds killed by the Asia-originated deadly flu strain. London has confirmed the probes Romania urgently sent for research. The first cases were discovered in the Danube delta a crossroad of the migratory routes of wild birds coming from Russia, Scandinavia, Poland and Germany.

H5N1 Virus Particles, Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

H5N1 virus causes avian flu in humans

According to the Sri Lanka Sunday Observer, though, India sees no cause for alarm over an avian flu epidemic. “So far there has been no human-to-human transmission of the virus.”

At Bayosphere, blogger Dan Gilmore isn’t so sanguine. He blames the Bush administration for failing to get in line for supplies of flu vaccine sooner, and says,

Here’s what a more competent and less ideological administration would do. It would say there’s an emergency, and launch an emergency effort to get American pharmaceutical companies will make this drug, paying a royalty to Roche. And if Roche balked, we’d do what developing nations are doing in the case of hyper-expensive AIDS drugs: Make them anyway. Meanwhile, we’d be embarking on a crash vaccine program, one designed so we were not dependent on the same drug industry that left the US without nearly enough flu shots last year…

The Freedom Rider seems more worried about a military response to a flu epidemic in the US than he is about the disease itself. “In case of a bird flu outbreak, President Bush says that he would have to call in the troops, here on US soil, to keep us all safe. Somehow the thought doesn’t make me feel any safer.”

Don’t worry, chandrasutra tells us&#8212according to experts, “information is key to fighting flu pandemics.” The post cites a number of excellent resources in the battle, including the WHO Avian flu site, and a BBC Avian Flu Q&A.

And at Junkyard Blog, B. Preston notes that the Democrats’ plan to create the “next great genocidal smear campaign… will shamelessly use the coming bird flu threat to orchestrate it.” Preston points out that the Bush Administration has spent a year building a plan to deal with a pandemic, and notes

Bush literally can’t win with them–especially when the failures in New Orleans had “Democrat” written all over them. The closer to failure the Democrats actually are, the more they blame Bush for it. [Avian] flu has been nagging at the edges since 1997. Last time I checked, that means the Clintonistas had a few years to start working on the problem. Did they? Did they?

The threat may be real, or it may be an inflated concern like the 1976 Swine Flu fiasco, when more people died from the vaccine for the flu than from the disease itself. H5N1 could be the next “Great Pandemic.” Or it could be only another political football to justify spending our money and curtailing our freedoms.

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About DrPat

  • Bird Flue is nothing compared to what happened to a respcted President of a university at east end of Turkey.

    President of “The University of 100th Aniversary” is an exceptional personality. It is at the east end corner of Turkey, next to Lake Van, in the city of Van. He collected local archeological artifacts and secured in the university. However he was in confict with the existing government in ruling the university. The Ministry of Education is MP of Van. So this week Security officials arrested and interrogated the President of 100.Anniversary VAN University for 10 hours while standing presumably due to unreasonable local political issues. They collected the archeological artifacts, while demolishing most of them while the purpose was to protect. After observing the upcoming latest local news in VAN, I feel that the population in city of VAN does not deserve to have an university in their home city, and hence it is much better that the university is to be relocated to somewhere else such as to Sirnak or Bingol so that their people does appreciate what it means to have a university, academicians and an extraordinary president, Prof.Dr. Yücel Aşkın. We all watch carefully.

  • Michael Craig

    I have been following the flu virus for most of a year. Articles are informative, e.g., recent National Geographic lead story (Oct 2005). However, also look at sims on epidemic control. Ones I have read about indicate most effective strategy is forced quarrantine by military. That’s why Bush floated it. Second, check the backorders on Tamiflu and nano face masks.
    Both are backordered for months. Vaccines will take much longer to produce than the spread time (6 months worldwide) In short, if it hits, figure serious economic and political disruption and you will be on your own.
    How many of us are prepared to feed our selfs, provide drinking water, and our own medical care over the year it may well take for this pandemic to burn out?
    A brief study of what happened in NO is will be a good primer for what is to follow.

  • I doubt there was much poultry-crowding or hormone-feeding in the early 1900s, yet we’re now learning that the Great Pandemic of 1918 was probably an avian flu that jumped to humans.

    Natural methods of fighting disease include, in my opinion, using the vaccines that have been developed to target the virus. You do know that there is a difference between bacteria/amoeba-sized disease sources and viruses, right?

    Virus particles are super-tiny, and since they’re technically not alive, killing them doesn’t really help. We have to use technically-advanced methods to render them harmless, or to fight the symptoms until our bodies can purge them.

    Even so, current viral theory is that “overcome” viruses linger in the body for the rest of our lives. They’re down, but not out. Think of Herpes zoster, a virus which causes chicken pox in its first infection, then lies dormant until it re-emerges as shingles.

  • Thanks Pat. That seconded what I recalled on another thread about the Swine Flu vaccine doing more harm than good.

    I look at all of this and it bothers me that more natural approaches, which I follow in my own life, are probably not going to be tried. For instance, I don’t know if the unnaturally crowded conditions that we keep poultry in contribute to this, or if the hormones and antibiotics they are fed could be making this more likely, or if basic sanitation and hygiene are being ignored because of crowded conditions or factory farming. I know that when you fool with nature, and you create a climate for diseases to happen. The animals that I’ve seen that are fed really good diets are glossy and healthy.

  • Currently there are far more human deaths from Ebola than from H5N1. The fear of avain flu seems to be generated from three factors:

    1. Marked similarities between H5N1 avian flu virus and the killer influenza from 1918
    2. The widening gap between demand for flu vaccine in the US and the global supply
    3. Easy passage of the avian vector across borders via migrating birds

    A few years ago, the panic was over West Nile Virus encephalitis, which continues to spread through the bird and horse populations in the US, but for which we see diminishing numbers of human deaths.

    Using the National Guard to help stem the effects of panic makes more sense than using them to “cordon off” a quarantined area. And to be fair, the President did NOT say that the plan was to cordon off cities and use the military to prevent people from escaping quarantined areas. His remarks were carefully quoted in the US press, a word or two at a time, to give that impression.

    According to International Tribune Health/Science Wednesday:

    If an epidemic appears, he said, he has weighed whether to quarantine parts of the country and whether to employ the military to enforce such a quarantine… Bush, in devoting a long and detailed reply to the subject of bird flu, appeared intent on promoting readiness and raising the public’s awareness… An outbreak would pose difficult policy challenges, Bush said, including the question of imposing a regional quarantine. “It’s one thing to shut down your airplanes, it’s another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu,” he said… The president had already raised, following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the delicate question of giving the military a larger role in responding to domestic disasters. His comment Tuesday appeared to presage a concerted push to change laws that limit such use. [Emphasis mine.]

  • Rupert

    There does appear to have been some very limited human-to-human transmission (one probable case in VietNam, where a doctor who had been treating a patient diagnosed with avian flu subsequently succumbed to it himself, and more recently familial clusters in Indonesia.)

    If H5N1 does mutate into a form which is readily transmissible between humans and retains its mortality rate, then we do have a problem. Given that people travel further and more often than they did in 1918 and that an infected individual is likely to be shedding virus for some days before he/she exhibits flu symptoms, then a pandemic could develop rapidly and there would be few places likely to miss it.

    The virus itself may kill many people, but the probable panic, together with the (partial) collapse of ‘civilisation’ (Trade, including food supplies and possibly power and other utilities could all be hit hard) may cause further deaths.

    President Bush has already talked about quarantine areas enforced by martial law; it’s difficult to see how that would be brought into force. – How many soldiers would you need to throw a cordon around New York City, for instance? – Would there be any point if the virus had entered through JFK, carried by a passenger who didn’t know he was ill, had infected half the passengers on the aircraft and then flown on to Los Angeles? Would he then throw a military cordon around greater LA to impose a quarantine there? (I’m using those two cities as an example, not because I think NY is the likely entry point.)

    If a pandemic does start, then meetings between large groups of people (schools, theaters, colleges, churches etc) may be inadvisable and indeed, schools, colleges and theaters may close ‘for the duration.’ Some factories may also close – which would be a ‘double whammy’ – people may not be paid and we may start to run out of necessities. It may not be a bad idea to hold a stock of ‘vital’ supplies sufficient to last a couple of weeks, so that in the event that there are shortages, people will be able to get by.

  • Bennett

    Thanks DrPat, very informative.

  • RJ

    Avian Flu is a killer virus, no question.

    However, it has thus far only been transmitted to humans via infected birds. The virus, however, has been known to mutate (as all viruses do). So, perhaps we are not too far away from a mutation that allows human-to-human infection.

    If this occurs, there will be millions killed globally, and many thousands dead in the US. And that is a rather conservative estimate…