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Friday, October 21, 2005

H5N1 Virus

There was an entire page devoted to the bird flu, or avian influenza (1,2), in the paper today. And, while I was glancing through it I realized that this sort of thing seemed to be happening a lot recently. In the last 7 - 8 years, there have been all sorts of epidemics, or 'pandemics' as the article put it, with livestock and poultry. It's sad in several ways. I think the reason behind the problem is our inexhaustive, persistent demand for animal flesh that results in these creatures spending their entire lives in cages and coops, in utterly pathetic conditions. Once the conditions are just right for the disease, there is a crisis, and surprisingly, we just get rid of the 'infected' ones. Wow. How convenient. Alright, before I get all caught up and start insulting the human race let me just put up some information about the avian flu. There is a diagram and a bunch of FAQs.


1) What is the virus?
Bird flu is an infection caused by avian influenza viruses called H5N1 virus. It occurs naturally among birds and is very contagious. It generally kills chickens, ducks and turkeys. It was first isolated from birds in South Africa in 1961. It spreads very rapidly among birds, destroys internal organs and has a mortality rate that can reach 100% within 48 hours.

2)What are the carriers? How does it spread?
Migratory waterfowl, especially ducks, carry the viruses. Although they often appear healthy, these infected birds shed the virus in their droppings, saliva and nasal secretions. Domestic poultry, especially chickens, turkeys and geese, become infected from contact through contaminated water, feed or soil, or even by inhaling the airborne virus. Humans contract the bird flu virus from close contact with sick birds or with surfaces contaminated by their feathers, saliva or droppings. Although this virus usually did not infect humans, several instances of human infections have been reported since 1997.

3)What are the symptoms?
Fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, eye infections, pneumonia and severe respiratory diseases such as acute respiratory distress.

4) Does the virus spread easily from birds to humans?
No. Though more than a 100 human cases have occurred in the current outbreak, this is a small number compared with the huge humber of birds affected. It is no presently understood why some people, and others, become infected following similar exposures.

5) Biggest Threat
Scientists are afraid that the H5N1 strain of bird flu might mutate and spawn a human virus that would kill millions. In its current form, it is difficult to transmit to people.

6) What is the status of vaccine?
No vaccine in availaable, because no one knows the precise shape that it will take after mutating to the feared highly contagious form. The race is on in India, US, Germany, Hungary and Vietnam. Several prtotypes are being explored, but the risk is that they could be only partially effective. If a pandemic does occur, one worry is about manufacturing capacity and distribution: making enough of the vaccine and getting it on time and to the right people, without causing panic or a black market or leaving poor countries helpless.

7) What drugs are available for treatment?
Two drugs oseltamivir (commercially known as
Tamiflu) and zanamivir (commercially known as Relenza) can reduce the severity and duration of illness caused by seasonal influenza. Their efficacy depends on their administration within 48 hours after the symptom onset. However, fears are that the flu virus may soon become resistant to it. Tamiflu also is expensive and in limited supply and thus would not be effective in the face of a widespread epidemic.

8)Worrying new detail
A case has been reported in which the virus in a Vietnamese teenager has proved resistance to the drug Tamiflu. This has heightened concern about the
Roche Holding AG drug, currently the centerpiece of global and national drug stockpiles against a possible pandemic of H5N1 avian influenza. The 14-year-old girl didn't have direct contact with sick poultry but had cared for her 21-year-old brother while he was ill with avian flu. This case has raised fears that the virus could have transmitted from brother to sister.

9) Precautions
Avoid open-air markets, where eggs and birds are sold in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

Well, that was what the Times of India had to say about it. And it turns out that there are still cases of people falling ill. I don't know though, the thing is that it's gotten into this vicious circle where we're trying to eradicate a disease that is prevalent among animals that we consume because we've condemned them to gruesome living conditions in the first place. Definitely a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg situation, but then using that would just be too cruelly ironic. So the next time you're at KFC or wherever think about it. No, I'm not saying your sandwich/burger is just oozing with pathogens...I'm saying think about how much a part of the problem you are...we all are. But it's pretty scary stuff. If the disease is able to jump to humans more readily, then it'll add to the already growing list of killer diseases.
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