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New Project Underway to Stop Avian Virus from Spreading to Humans

The Avian virus, which causes bird flu, is killing huge numbers of chickens in Southeast Asia. Although, so far, only a small number of people have contracted the disease, there is fear the virus will spread to the general population. At the University of Maryland, outside Washington, DC, a new project is underway to learn more about the Avian virus.

University of Maryland scientist Daniel Perez is in a race against time. He is the head of a program that is working to stop the spread of the Avian virus in chickens and other birds before it becomes a greater threat to humans. "It's just a matter of time. So if we don't do something to eradicate these viruses the danger will always be there."

The researchers hope to figure out how the tiny organism replicates, so it can be stopped from spreading. Waterfowl and other migratory birds can tolerate the virus, secreting it as waste into ponds, lakes and rivers. But the virus becomes deadly when it infects birds that live on land, particularly chickens.

Mr. Perez says many diseased chickens in countries like China, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and South Korea have been slaughtered to stop the spread of the disease. "Right now that's the only tool that is effective in controlling the spread of Avian influenza."

He says the Avian virus is bound to mutate, and may become more easily transmitted to humans. "The virus is completely unpredictable. And we really don't know enough what it will take for this virus to get into humans."

People can become sick by handling infected live poultry or contaminated meat. Right now, there is no vaccine to protect humans from the deadly strain of bird flu. In the past year, more than 50 people in Southeast Asia contracted the disease, and most died. He says, "The symptoms will basically start like any flu symptoms… But then instead of slowing down like a normal flu infection in a normal adult, it will go basically into the extreme of causing viral pneumonia and death."

Researchers at the University of Maryland laboratory are from around the world, including Bangladesh, Israel and the Philippines.

Hongquan Wan, from China, is exploring how the virus is transmitted from birds to mammals. He says one reason the bird flu spreads so quickly in China is because farmers raise chickens and other animals together in filthy conditions. Back home he talks to farmers about the problem. "I frequently go out to tell them what is happening, how to prevent the disease from jumping from chickens and other species to human beings."

Researcher Gloria Ramirez, from Colombia, says even though there are no reports of the virus among birds in Latin America, outbreaks could occur any time. "If the virus comes to Colombia, for example, you have a population that doesn't have any protection, no immunity, so it would be devastating," she said.

Mr. Perez is concerned, however, that some countries around the world may be hiding an Avian flu epidemic. "And it's a big public health issue so you would like countries to be more open about whether they have it or not. But it also has major economic implications."

Mr. Perez is hopeful researchers will find ways to defeat bird flu, but it won't be overnight. "I want to be optimistic, but it's going to take a long-term plan required to eradicate this virus."

The ultimate goal is to prevent what this sign on a laboratory door has been changed to read. Instead of "Chicken Crossing," it now says: "Chicken Flu Crossing to Humans."