Chinese New Year is being celebrated this week, and that means there will be more travel in Asia, more consumption of chickens and unfortunately more risk of becoming infected with the bird flu. In the scientific world, it's called H5N1, the current, avian flu virus, which emerged in Hong Kong in 1997 and has recently caused the medical community to fear it could very well be the next global pandemic.
Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control labs in the southern U.S. state of Georgia are not taking any chances when they handle the avian flu virus. It has proven deadly to humans and has caused the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of birds across Asia.
In the first five weeks of 2005, Vietnamese health officials documented more than a dozen human deaths, a fact that concerns Dr. Nancy Cox, the chief influenza scientist at the CDC. "This virus is particularly nasty. We've never seen any influenza virus quite like it before," said Dr. Cox.
Scientists are watching the avian flu very closely. The avian influenza strain normally infects birds exclusively before being transmitted to humans. But since influenza viruses are highly unstable, scientists such as Dr. Tim Uyeki, a flu epidemiologist, fear that human-to-human infections could happen. "At the moment the viruses don't have the ability really to go from person to person. But we're certainly concerned they could acquire this ability," said Dr. Uyeki.
In December, the World Health Organization met to discuss the recurring and unpredictable calamity of influenza pandemics. The last pandemic was 35 years ago. And even though the global spread of a pandemic cannot be stopped, preparedness might reduce its impact.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. He compares the current avian flu strain with the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic last century when 20 to 50 million people died. According to Dr. Fauci, "The general level of protection is essentially zero in the population. That can lead to a catastrophic situation similar to what we saw in 1918, when we had essentially the worst recorded influenza pandemic."
Vaccines to protect against disease are more common than they were 88 years ago when the Spanish flu infected more than a quarter of the world's population. And while it is impossible to accurately forecast the magnitude of the next pandemic, scientists realize that much of the world is unprepared for a pandemic of any size.
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, a flu epidemiologist, is worried that an avian influenza pandemic is on the horizon. "What we're really afraid of is it gaining the ability to spread easily, like regular influenza does," said Dr. Fukuda.
Dr. Uyeki says, "The world is not prepared for a global influenza pandemic."
The World Health Organization predicts that even in the best-case mathematical projections, if the avian flu reaches the stage where it is transmitted from human to human, a pandemic would kill two to seven million people while tens of millions would require medical attention. All the more reason for continued research into developing an avian flu vaccine.