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Bird Flu Infections Could Be More Common Than Previously Thought


In the last week, at least 12 people in Turkey have been infected with bird flu. While UN officials fear the virus may spread from Turkey to nearby countries, a new study says bird flu may be more common, and less harmful, than previously thought.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is worried that bird flu could become endemic in Turkey. Joseph Domenech, FAO's chief veterinary officer, says the country's latest outbreaks pose a severe threat to its neighbors as well.

"The situation is worrying because we have more outbreaks than we thought. Normally, when the virus is introduced through wildlife or trade, you have one outbreak, two outbreaks,” he said.

But a small team of Swedish scientists from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm says outbreaks may be more common, and less dangerous, than previously thought.

The team interviewed 12,000 people in Vietnam, most of whom lived in close proximity to poultry, and found that nearly 18 percent of those interviewed had experienced bird flu-like symptoms. The team estimates there were between 650 and 750 cases of flu-like illness linked to direct contact with sick or dead poultry. That number far exceeds Vietnam's 87 official bird flu victims, all of whom ended up in the hospital.

If confirmed, the results mean that many more people who are in contact with birds develop an infection, but in most cases it is mild and gets better without special treatment. That, in turn, means that the overall death rate is much lower than previously estimated.

This theory is supported by the Turkish outbreak, in which most of the cases do not seem to have made their victims deathly ill.

The World Health Organization thinks the world is now closer to another flu pandemic, more so than at any time since 1968 when the last pandemic occurred. But if the Swedish team's research proves correct, fears of a deadly pandemic may be excessive.