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Bird Flu Update
Virus Continues to Spread Throughout Asia, Arrives in U.S.

February 20th, 2004

By Ken McGrath :eCureMe Staff Writer
February 18th, 2004 : Physician Approved

Avian flu continued to spread in Asia during February, with the death toll reaching 22, while a milder form of the virus has been found in chicken in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Mutation Not Ruled Out

Officials from the United Nations have commented that given the spread of the virus across Asia, the number of deaths is relatively low. Presently, the strain of the virus circulating in Asia - H5N1 avian influenza - can infect humans. However, what has most public health experts concerned isn’t what the virus is, but what it could become. If avian influenza were to come in contact with a strain of human influenza virus and mutate, it could pick up genetic material that would allow it to spread from person to person. In that case, experts warn, the disease would spread much more rapidly and possibly becoming the next influenza epidemic.

On Friday, February 6th, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the results of tests performed on two sisters who had died of the disease in Vietnam. The results concluded, to the relief of many, that the viruses that infected the women contained no human genes. On February 10th the WHO pulled back on its pronouncement. A mix-up in the testing, it said, meant that the data it had wasn’t complete enough to support its previous assertion, re-opening the door for possible human-to-human transmission.

Flu Emerges in Northeast

As H5N1 avian flu continued to spread throughout Asia during the first week of February, officials in the U.S. found a variant of the virus in chickens on two Delaware farms. The type of virus found in Delaware, known as an H7, cannot be spread to humans. Farms within a 50-mile radius of the infected flocks were quarantined and 84,000 of the state’s chickens were slaughtered.

The same strain of virus appeared a week later in four separate live chicken markets in New Jersey. State health officials stressed to the media that such findings were not unusual when live market chickens were tested during the winter.

On February 16th, Pennsylvania Agriculture Department confirmed that a flock in the sout heastern part of the state was infected with an H2N2 strain of the virus - which like those in other outbreaks isn’t harmful to humans.

While timely, mild outbreaks of avian flu have occurred periodically in the U.S. since the 1920s. A northeastern outbreak in 1983 and 1984 resulted in the slaughter of 17 million chickens and a spike in the price of eggs. Expensive and inconvenient, even the deadly H5N1 strain is, so far, only communicable to humans through direct contact with infected birds. Once the animal is slaughtered and readied for consumption, cooking easily kills the virus.

Despite its limitations, authorities aren’t betting on avian flu disappearing any time soon. Speaking to Reuters, Samuel Jutzi, director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s animal health department, said " We hope that countries in [Asia] can get on top of the disease, but we are less certain as to whether the virus can be pushed back or eliminatedíŽIt may well be that the sector has to live with this virus as it tries to live with other diseases."

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