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Bird Flu 101

with Dr. Mona Khanna

The most recent strain of avian influenza has scientists speculating about a worldwide pandemic. Find out how concerned you should be.

Transcript: Bird Flu 101

Pandemic. Now there's a word guaranteed to inspire dread. Pandemics occur when a new flu virus emerges, causing serious illness and death around the world. There have been four in the last hundred years. The most recent killed about 1 million people in 1968 and 1969. The 1918 flu pandemic took 40 million lives. All are thought to have originated with flu strains that normally affect only birds know as avian flu or bird flu.

Bird Flu Pandemic?

Unfortunately, a new strain of avian flu has public health officials worried about the potential for a new pandemic, even though by the start of the 2005 flu season, only about 100 people had come down with this new strain since it first appeared in 1997.

While there is genuine cause for concern, a pandemic isn't inevitable. Medical advances since the last pandemic can make a big difference. Better flu tests, anti-viral drugs, and the likelihood that a vaccine can be developed quickly are all powerful weapons.

What is the Bird Flu?

So what exactly is avian flu? Avian flu is an infectious disease that usually causes only minor symptoms in birds. But there are two types that researchers refer to as "highly pathogenic," which means they are capable of spreading rapidly through a flock and killing most of the birds that become ill.

Bird Flu History

While normally, avian flu infects only birds, in 1997, 18 people in Hong Kong came down with an avian flu strain known as H5N1. Six of them died. To control the outbreak, 1.5 million chickens, ducks, and geese were destroyed.

By the fall of 2005, outbreaks of H5N1 in birds had been reported in nine countries in Asia and two in Europe. More than half of the 100 people that had been infected had died.

That's the bad news. The good news is that so far, H5N1 does not jump easily from birds to people, or from person to person. Most of the people who had been infected were poultry farmers who had direct contact with infected birds. Unless H5N1 changes into a form that infects humans more easily, the chances of catching avian flu remain extremely low.

What Should You do to Avoid the Bird Flu?

If you travel to a country where H5N1 has been detected in birds, it's a good idea to stay away from live poultry. Avian flu is not a food-born illness and the virus is sensitive to heat which means it's safe to eat poultry if you follow normal procedures for cooking and handling poultry.

What Research Tells us About the Bird Flu

The obvious question, then, is why all the concern about a possible pandemic? It has to do with the tendency for flu viruses to change as they reproduce. There's a chance H5N1 will mutate until it acquires the ability to infect humans more easily. A second possibility is that if a person comes down with a garden variety version of the flu and H5N1 at the same time, the two strains could merge into a new variety capable of moving from person to person. It's that second scenario that worries researchers most.

Containing the Bird Flu

To prepare, governments are stockpiling anti-viral medications like Tamiflu and work is underway on a vaccine for H5N1 flu.

There is a strong worldwide effort to control the spread of avian flu in birds and monitor its affect on humans to prevent it from spreading quickly if it does mutate into a form that moves easily from person to person.

The best news so far is that it hasn't happened yet. And there's a chance it never will.

I'm Dr. Mona Khanna, About Health.

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