News Analysis: Is The Avian Flu Still a Global Threat?

Just a year ago, headlines from newspapers all over the world were screaming about a possible bird flu pandemic. Now this story is no longer on the front burner. Has the threat gone away or are the media just not paying attention? Ann Murray joins Matthew Craig to talk about these and other questions about a virus that was once called a global hazard to human health.

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OPEN: Just a couple years ago, headlines from newspapers all over the world were screaming about a possible bird flu pandemic. Now this story is no longer on the front burner for news organizations. Has the threat gone away or are the media just not paying attention? The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray joins me to talk about these and other questions about a virus that was once called a global hazard to human health.

M: Has the threat disappeared or are we just not hearing about it?

A: For the most part, scientists seem to think that the threat of the bird flu virus to mutate and affect humans is still there but most say the virus is stable. That means it's less likely to mutate into strains that could affect people.

M: But I've read that the flu is still killing a lot of birds. So the virus is still very much alive among animals.

A: That's right. Scientists point out that the disease is no less deadly or widespread among birds than it was a few years ago. It's been found in birds in 60 countries. Experts say bird flu outbreaks in 15 countries since December are evidence that the deadly H5N1 viral strain remains a global threat .

M: Where is the flu still most prevalent among birds?

A: Mostly eastern countries including Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria. Other countries where bird populations are hard hit are Viet Nam, parts of China and Bangladesch.

M: Are we talking about wild birds or domestic birds?

A: Mostly domestic birds like chickens. Some scientists think there's a separate virus in wild birds that has spread across Asia and Europe.

M: How have countries prepared for this virus?

A: Labs have gotten better at testing for avian flu. In the countries with the most cases of flu- mostly among domestic flocks of chickens, governments are now responding more quickly to round up these birds and get them out of the food chain.

M: Hasn't there been a pretty successful campaign to vaccinate poultry against the virus?

A: Vaccination campaigns had been generally successful on commercial farms, but not among small-scale producers according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

M: I've read that India is having trouble with rounding up about 400 thousand infected chickens in the most recent bird flu outbreak in western India . What's happening there?

A: The government is offering farmers compensation for the chickens but the compensation is so low that farmers are deciding it isn't worth the effort to get the poultry to officials. Many people are refusing to give the chickens to government officials for slaughter.

M: What about cases of avian flu among people? How many cases have been reported?

A: Scientists think that cases have been under reported but the numbers have gone down in the last two years. Around 90 confirmed cases in 2007, compared to 115 in 2006.

M: How many of those people have died?

A: Around 60 people died last year .80 people died in 2006. Of the 353 human cases of avian flu in 14 countries since 2003, the World Health Organization reports that 221 people have died of the disease.

M: So should we feel safe?

A: A lot of scientists think that countries now have more time to prepare if the virus would mutate. But other virologists think it's not if but when the virus will mutate. One example offered is a virus that struck horses in the 1960s and took almost 40 years to mutate into a strain that affects dogs.

M: Are world health organizations still calling for vaccinating people?

A: Some scientists think people should be vaccinated as a precaution.

M: Are countries ready to vaccinate billions of people?

A: The World Health Organization estimates it would take a year to produce a billion doses of any vaccine. But experts now anticipate that global production capacity will rise to 4.5 billion pandemic immunization doses a year by 2010. Still shy of the nearly 7 billion people in the world.

M: Why would the capacity to produce vaccines go up so sharply?

A: Vaccine production capacity is linked to the amount of antigen, the substance that stimulates an immune response, that has to be used to make each dose of the vaccine. Scientists have recently discovered they can reduce the amount of antigen used to produce pandemic influenza vaccines .

M: Even if vaccines would be widely available would people opt for them?

A: The consensus among scientists in the US is that many Americans wouldn't be willing to have the shots because of bad experiences with swine flu shots in the 1970s. Lots of people got sick from the vaccines.

M: Thanks for the update, Ann.

A: You're welcome. We have more information on our web site, alleghenyfont.org