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Bird Flu Outbreak Could Be Beginning of Worldwide Epidemic
Could be "a bigger potential problem than SARS" say WHO Officials

January 19th, 2004

By Louis Wittig : eCureMe Staff Writer
January 16th, 2004 : Physician Reviewed

A new flu virus has emerged among birds throughout East Asia, and it’s potential to travel among humans has global health experts fearing a new influenza pandemic.

Avian flu, a deadly, highly contagious virus prevalent among chicken and ducks, is spread to humans via contact with infected birds. In Vietnam, the center of the current outbreak, over 40,000 birds have died of the virus. Hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered to prevent the virus from spreading further. 14 cases of the disease in humans have been confirmed, resulting in three deaths.

The greater risk, experts contend, is that that once in humans, the Avian Flu virus will combine with a strain of human influenza virus. Once combined, it’s possible the new virus would be able to spread easily from person to person. However, since Avian Flu is foreign to the human immune system, the virus could be much more deadly. Peter Cordingley, a World Health Organization regional coordinator, told reporters in Manila earlier this week that the virus could be "a bigger potential problem than SARS because we don’t have any natural defenses against the disease."

In the past, when strains of human influenza virus have combined with components of animal flu viruses, the picture hasn’t been pretty. Between 1918 and 1919, the "Spanish Flu" killed half a million Americans - and millions more worldwide. More recent epidemics of "Asian" and "Hong Kong Flu" in the 1950s and 60s have killed an additional 100,000 or more in the U.S.

As yet, there has been no evidence to suggest that the Avian flu has picked up any new genetic material that would allow humans to transmit it to other humans.

Bird flu first emerged on the public health scene in 1997 in Hong Kong. Eighteen people were infected and six died. The virus wasn’t able to spread between people, and the threat was effectively ended when authorities slaughtered all the chickens in the city.

Vietnam and other countries are employing a similar strategy. Vietnam, Japan and Korea have begun slaughtering poultry. Cambodia and Hong Kong have both closed their borders to chicken imports from affected areas. Whether the containment will work to head off a possible pandemic is yet to be seen.

E-mail Louis Wittig at

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