The flu season is back and this time no one wants to be chicken about it.

Sarah Royce
(graphic by GERVIS MENZIES/Daily)
Sarah Royce

In the latest incarnation of the seemingly run-of-the -mill disease, a new strain of influenza known as bird flu has countries and health organizations across the world on increasing alert.

For Americans, there’s good news and bad news about bird flu:

  • The disease has not yet reached the United States.
  • But if it does it could lead to the deaths of thousands and there is no bird flu vaccine available.
  • Unlike other forms of flu, the disease can only pass from bird to person.
  • Yet the virus reportedly kills 50 to 70 percent of its victims.

“This is an alarming rate of mortality,” said Matthew Boulton, associate professor of epidemiology. “Fifty percent of them dying is concerning.”

More common influenza strains prevalent among humans kill only about 1 person for every 1,000.

First detected in a 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, the strain is predominately carried by birds and has permeated throughout Asia and most recently appeared in Europe.

So far, bird flu has led to the deaths of more than 60 people in Asia. But if the disease mutates to the point it can infect from human to human, the World Health Organization estimates 2 to 7.4 million could die from the disease. It’s the worst-case scenario that doctors fear could lead to the next global flu pandemic.

Boulton, an expert on influenza, said the lethality of the disease is still in question since there may be more mild cases of the bird flu that have gone unreported. But it’s clear, he said, that while more common flu strains tend to threaten the lives of the elderly and the very young, bird flu won’t single anyone out.

Strategies to contain a potential flu pandemic have left countries scrambling to eradicate bird populations and develop a bird flu vaccine. The main focus of these efforts aim to thwart any chances for the disease becoming passable from human to human.

“The flu virus in terms of the genetic makeup is a bit pliable,” Boulton said. “It can change; it can undergo major or minor genetic changes. We see this all the time. That’s why the effectiveness of flu vaccines varies.”

Because of the flu’s malleable genetic makeup, researchers worry that if a person infected with a human influenza strain also becomes infected with bird flu, the two strains would exchange genetic traits, Boulton said. The result: “The avian flu would procure the ability to transmit from person to person,” he added.

Bird flu generally spreads through infected birds feces, naval secretions and undercooked meat. Health officials have attempted to isolate all cases of the bird flu as a result.

Although antiviral drugs are available to treat people with bird flu, Boulton noted that many of the people who have died from the disease took drugs with little effect.

Epidemiology Prof. Arnold Monto said of the bird flu, “There are so many unknowns.”

Instead, only the potential threats of the disease are evident. Because birds are the main hosts of the disease, the mobility of the flu strain can span continents.

Monto said the chances of bird flu arriving in America are small because birds with the flu most likely will not cross over the Pacific into North America.

But he did note that as winter approaches many of those infected birds will migrate toward Africa, a continent ill-equipped to contain bird flu.

In response to a potential flu pandemic and past shortages on the flu vaccine, President Bush recently announced a $7.1-billion plan to produce enough vaccine for all Americans. Along with the development of vaccines to combat newer strains of the flu, the proposal, yet to be passed by Congress, will also fund efforts to contain flu outbreaks abroad.

Robert Winfield, director of University Health Service, said of the plan: “It appears to me to be a very reasonable approach, – but it may take several years to achieve.”

Boulton criticized the plan for diverting authority of flu response from Health and Human Services to the Department of Homeland Security, an agency he feels lacks the apititude to prevent flu pandemics. Homeland Security has taken heat for its response to Hurricane Katrina in the past months.

Boulton added, “It’s taken a long time to get President Bush’s attention, and we could have used the two years (before talk began on a plan) to prepare.”

As for common flu strains putting a damper on students’ plans, Winfield said this year he anticipates UHS will run out of vaccine in the next week. In the fall of last year, Michigan also endured a flu vaccine shortage, forcing the state to restrict distribution of vaccines. On Saturday he estimated UHS had only 50 doses left.

“The manufacturing capacity is not sufficient worldwide,” he said, as most pharmaceutical companies opt to produce more profitable drugs that are in greater demand.

But should students be worried about flu?

In 1918 and 1957, Winfield said, millions of people across the world died due to flu pandemics. Many of the victims were of college age and younger. But besides those pandemics, “(Flu) is not terribly deadly for young people,” Winfield said, adding that most students generally aren’t aware of the flu’s deadly past.

“But I think that one of the reasons it’s downplayed is that the epidemics are 20 to 30 years apart,” he said.

“It’s inevitable that there will be another pandemic,” Monto said.

No one can predict what age groups will be affected the most or whether bird flu will ultimately provide the spark that gives way to a pandemic.

“But it’s not inevitable if it will be a disastrous pandemic,” Monto said. “We can prepare for it and try to stop it from becoming a disaster.”

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