News Analysis: Bird Flu

Scientists believe it's just a matter of time before the bird flu virus makes it way to the United States. The virus has already shown up in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Tens of millions of birds have contracted the disease but so far there have been only about 170 known cases in humans. About half the people who contracted the virus have died. All had direct contact with infected poultry. Researchers say a pandemic is possible but not inevitable. Scientists believe that migratory water birds may be the most likely carriers. At present,the United States doesn't have an approved flu vaccine or an adequate stockpile of antiviral drugs or respirators to deal with an epidemic.

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The virus that causes avian flu hasn't reached the United States but many scientists predict it's just a matter of time. Ann Murray is here with Host Matthew Craig to talk about the advance of the bird flu virus and how serious the risk is for a worldwide epidemic of the disease.

M: So far, where has the virus shown up?

A: The first place was Asia: China, Viet Nam. Then Germany and now Nigeria. The latest country to report human cases is Azerbaiian. Five of the seven people who caught it have died there. Worldwide, the virus has infected tens of millions of birds but according to the World Health Organization has infected about 170 people. Almost all human cases have been traced to close contact with infected poultry. But, it's impossible to know how many people have been exposed to the virus.

M: It doesn't sound as though the virus infects people easily.

A: That seems to be the case. The people who do catch it almost never spread it to other people. But when people do contract it , it's deadly.
M: You just said about 170 people have contracted bird flu. How many have died?

A: More than half. That's considered to be a very high rate. Doctors say that the exceptional thing is that these people aren't the usual people to die from flu. They aren't old and frail but have generally been healthy. This is what really worries scientists.

M: Scientists have also recently discovered that the flu pandemic of 1918 was caused by a bird flu.

A: Yes that's right. That virus jumped directly from birds to humans. In fact, this current virus belongs to a group of influenza viruses known as Type A, which are the only ones that have caused pandemics, that is, worldwide epidemic. All those viruses were originally bird flus.

M: So what do scientists think about the possibility of a worldwide epidemic of this virus?

A: Many scientists think it's possible but not inevitable. If the virus acquires the ability to spread easily from person to person, a pandemic could erupt. Right now it doesn't have that ability.

M: I thought viruses could mutate.

A: Yes they can. This virus has been changing genetically and some scientists worry that it could swap genetic materials with human flus and become contagious. But again most bird flu viruses don't jump from birds to people. This virus has actually been around for ten years and hasn't made that transission.

M: But isn't this strain of the virus different than the one found ten years ago. It's killed more species of birds and has actually killed mammals: cats that have eaten birds with the virus.

A: Yes. That's certainly concerned researchers.

M: If the flu reaches us here in the United States where is it most likely to appear?

A: Researchers don't know. The most likely scenario is with migrating water birds but there's also the more remote possibility of birds being brought into the country illegally or a human being with the virus transporting the disease.

M: But if the virus kills birds, dead birds obviously can't migrate.

A: Some researchers suspect that wild ducks, or perhaps other wild birds, are resistant to the virus. They get the virus, spread it to other birds but never become sick themselves. No one has good evidence of this yet, but that may be because the way scientists discovered this infection was by finding birds that had gotten the flu and died.

M: Is our government prepared for a bird flu pandemic?

A: No. The US doesn't have an approved flu vaccine for people or enough antiviral drugs or respirators for everyone who'd need them. The best bet will come from a vaccine, but scientists can't tell ahead of time what strain the vaccine should protect against.

M: I just heard about an experimental vaccine that has some promise.

A: An experimental bird flu vaccine has potential to offer protection from a pandemic, according to a study in the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. But the research also suggests the effective dose is much greater than originally thought -- and it works in only half of all patients. This means the U.S. federal government's current stockpile of vaccine is inadequate.

M: Do any medicines treat or prevent bird flu?

A. Two prescription drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, may make the disease less severe if they're taken within a day or two after the symptoms begin. But Relenza, is a powder and can irritate the lungs and isn't recommended for people with asthma or other chronic lung diseases.

M. If bird flu reaches the United States, will it be safe to eat poultry or to be around birds or other animals?

A: Birds are getting vaccinated against the virus in countries like China and Viet Nam but not here. It is safe to eat chicken and other poultry when it's cooked thoroughly. It's not clear how long the virus lives on a dead bird, but it is unlikely to survive more than a couple of days.

M: What about bird feeders?

A: US agencies haven't yet issued any warnings yet. Researchers say that even if the virus does arrive here, the kinds of birds that eat at feeders are far less likely to carry the virus than are aquatic birds like ducks and geese.

M: So to sum things up: right now there's reason for concern but people shouldn't panic about the bird flu.

A: Yes.

M: Thanks for information.

A: Sure.