Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Increasing Likelihood of an Avian Flu Pandemic

Ever since I read Gina Kolata's Flu a few months back, I've been conscious of, and somewhat frightened by, the persistence of Avian flu (H5A1 in epedimiological parlance) in southeast Asia. The book, of relatively recent vintage, explores like the murder mystery it sort of is the search to pin down what properties made the 1918 influenza pandemic so ruthlessly lethal.

Disease hunters have in recent years learned a great deal about that strain of flu, and there are concerns that the Avian flu shares its scariest properties. At the time of publication, Kolata discussed the initial emergence of avian flu in 1997, and the radical measures employed to contain it (widespread slaughter of potentially infected birds in east Asia), and expressed hope that -- this time -- disaster had been averted.

It turns out it's still around, however, and nastier than ever. Increasingly I'm seeing articles that suggest it's now more tenacious and lethal than it was in 1997. The above article suggests it is "entrenched" in the subcontinent.

It's an undisputed fact that, for now, it's not very communicable, if communicable at all, human to human. Largely, those people who have been infected have been in heavy contact with infected birds. What's scary about the entrenchment, however, is that if it's here to stay, and cannot be wiped out by the systematic extermination of a whole class of animals, then sooner or later it is very likely to mutate into a virus that has the lethality of the current Avian flu but the communicability of the more common annual flu outbreaks.

If that were to happen, it could be very very nasty. According to the WHO, 42 of the 55 known infected humans have died since January 2004. Check the tone of the WHO spokesman in the above-cited article. It's nothing to panic about, but it's less than encouraging.


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