Bird flu: how worried should we be?

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Bird flu has made for scary headlines from the moment it first hit the news, but it used to seem far enough away from the tip of Africa that we didn't need to worry. Yet as more countries – some, like Nigeria, rather closer to home – report outbreaks in animals and human cases of infection, many South Africans are starting to feel anxious.

No cause for panic
Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Head of the Department of Virology at the University of Stellenbosch, has words of calm reassurance for South Africans worried about avian flu:

"No system is perfect, but in terms of preparedness in the event of an avian flu outbreak, South Africa is pretty well prepared. Certainly, we’re not far behind many of the industrialized countries in this respect.

"We saw what can be done in South Africa when there was the outbreak of H5N2 in ostriches. This was successfully controlled, and the country was declared free of the disease. It served as a good training exercise for the same people who would be involved should there be a similar occurrence in future."

Primarily an animal health issue
Prof Preiser stresses it is important to remember that there are different types of bird flu, and most pose no harm to humans. The strain that is currently of concern is H5N1, a highly pathogenic variant in certain animal species, and which can cause serious illness in humans.

But this is primarily an animal health problem, and one of the main reasons it needs to be controlled is because of its impact on the poultry industry. It is not considered to constitute a major public health problem, given that transmission to humans requires close contact with infected birds, and only about 180 infected people have died in total.

In other words, this is a rare disease in humans.

Worst case scenario
The concern about bird flu is that flocks of domestic and wild birds could serve as a breeding ground for the virus, potentially allowing it to evolve into a strain that would be easily transmissible from human to human, much as happens currently with the familiar strains of flu that people experience every year.

This could happen if the bird flu virus mixes with a human flu virus and mutates to form a new strain. Although this is as yet only a possibility, because of the serious health implications of such a scenario, medical scientists and managers are striving to control the infection in animals.

What safety measures do we have in place?
Prof Preiser explains that there are extensive surveillance systems in place in South Africa to keep the country disease-free.

"Tens of thousands of specimens from chickens are tested on an ongoing basis. So any cover-up of an infection (for example, a farmer possibly trying to sell off the rest of his flock when some birds start to die) would be very difficult – it would be noticed."

Poultry farmers are also informed about the symptoms of bird disease. In the case of highly pathogenic avian flu, the disease is obvious in poultry in that it is usually rapidly fatal. That said, however, it is not always so prominent in all species that may become infected.

Further precautionary measures are to ensure that no birds are imported from affected countries; and even birds imported from non-affected countries are put through quarantine and testing.

Are any safety measures advised?
Taking the standard safety precautions when travelling should be quite sufficient as a sensible precaution, says Prof. Preiser. If you’re going to be in an area which may be at higher risk for bird flu:

  • Avoid live bird markets, or ‘wet’ markets, where animals are often slaughtered.
  • Don't eat or drink any food that may not be properly cooked e.g. raw duck blood. Cooked chicken and eggs are fine.
  • Don't visit poultry farms.
  • Consider getting an ordinary flu vaccine before you travel. This will not protect you from avian flu, but it is better not to display flu-like symptoms in an area at higher risk for bird flu: this may lead to your being unnecessarily quarantined.

- (Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, March 2006)

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