Monday, October 10, 2005

Bird Flu - Hype or Reality?

The US Senate has recently appropriated $4 Billion in funds to prepare the nation for dealing with an outbreak of a flu pandemic. President Bush has suggested modifying US legislation to allow the military to be used in the event of a flu outbreak. This weekend, the President met with flu drug manufacturers to discuss increasing their supplies of flu vaccine. All of this activity is due to a new lethal strain of avian flu that has caused a handful of deaths. (Newsweek: The Race Against Avian Flu).

So how much is hype and how much is reality? The fears prompting so much activity are really based on the potential that this year's avian flu is able to make the leap from its current form to one that is transmitted by humans to other humans. So far, this flu cannot do that, which makes it considerably less dangerous than is feared. What really put scientists into panic mode, however, was last week's announcement that a group of researches was able to recreate live samples of the Spanish Influenza virus that killed as many as 50 million people in 1918. What has them worried is the realization that the Spanish Flu virus is an avian virus just like this year's with very little mutation.

There was nothing in the way of mass transportation in 1918. There were no transatlantic flights, and the only means of travel from North America to Europe or Asia was via a very long ocean voyage. Yet the Spanish Flu managed to ravage all continents, thanks in no small part to World War I. Today, with transcontinental air travel taking only a few hours, spread of the virus would be deadly. Estimates of up to 150 million dead seem grossly understated, when you consider the ease with which the virus could spread across the globe in under 24-hours.

There is good news, however. Those same researchers that were able to recreate the Spanish Influenza virus were also able to locate a gene that prevents the virus from spreading. While they have yet to develop a vaccine that can do the same, understanding the genetic makeup of the virus is a major step forward. Given the tremendous amount of scientific research currently underway and the national attention this is getting both in congress and in the executive branch, I'm confident that we will be ready if this year's avian flu mutates into human transmission form. So no, it's not all hype, but neither is it cause for panic.



Alan Fraser said...

So, will you be getting a flu shot this year?? (I have no idea which variant this year's flu shot is supposed to prevent but it's certainly not bird flu.)

Kannafoot said...

No, I won't be getting a flu shot. I've never gotten either a flu shot or the flu, so I've no intention of changing that practice now.

Incidentally, the research on the bird flu shows that the people most susceptible to that variant are the healthiest people in the population. It appears that the old and the infirm (the people they typically want to get a shot) are not the people susceptible to this flu. It seems to require a healthy immune system to contract it.