New cases of avian flu are being reported more and more frequently -- causing fears the disease is spreading. It has recently been reported in Russia.
Since 1997, more than 100 people have been infected and more than half of them have died. If the virus mutates to a form that can be passed easily from person to person, it could quickly cause a global epidemic, known as a pandemic, says Dr. Bruce Gellin, Director of the National Vaccine Program Office and Chairman of the Influenza Preparedness Task Force at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"We're at risk of a pandemic because of the way this virus operates. We know that it could develop the ability to rapidly transmit among people. We can't say this virus is the one that's going to do it, but we do know that these viruses have produced pandemics in the past and therefore are likely to do so again in the future."
Dr. Patrick Kelley, the Director of the Board on Global Health at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, explains why there is so much concern about the spreading virus. "The big fear is that the more people who are exposed to it, the greater chance that an individual will simultaneously have the bird flu and a human flu. And there is a genetic process whereby the genetic material from both flus could be exchanged in such a way to create a new strain of flu that is highly transmissible and highly pathogenic -- that is, can cause a person to become very ill and even die."
The origins of the most recent pandemics are quite similar: viruses containing a combination of human and avian influenza viruses caused both the Hong Kong flu of 1968 to 1969 and the Asian flu of 1957 to 1958. The origin of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919, in which as many as 50 million people died, is unclear, but is presumed to be avian flu, as well. Experts say pandemics usually occur three or four times a century, so they feel the time and current conditions are ripe for one.
Dr. Kelley says detection is crucial to preventing a pandemic. "To prevent a pandemic, there are several things that we can do. One of them is to strengthen the global surveillance system, so that when a pandemic strain emerges, we can recognize it as soon as possible and try to bring efforts to contain it, before it spreads widely."
Containment efforts would likely include quarantines and anti-viral medications. Dr. Kelley also says the U.S. and other countries might need to share their supplies of medicines with other countries so that a relatively small outbreak could be contained, to prevent it from getting into global circulation.
Dr. Gellin stresses that every nation, across the globe, needs to be prepared. "I think it's important to recognize that all countries need to understand that this could affect them and all countries need to develop their own planning mechanism to think about what they would do, should the pandemic reach them."
Experts point out that an influenza pandemic would not only be a huge, international health crisis, but also would cause social and economic crises, all reasons health and government officials are sounding alarms about the current spread of the avian flu.