Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Avian Flu Update

From the Washington Post:
Robert G. Webster is watching his 40-year-old hunch about the origin of pandemic influenza play out before his eyes. It would be thrilling if it were not so terrifying.

Four decades ago, Webster was a young microbiologist from New Zealand on a brief sojourn in London. While he was there, he did an experiment that pretty much set the course of his scientific career. In just a few hours, he showed that the microbe that swept the globe in 1957 as "Asian flu" bore an unmistakable resemblance to strains of virus carried by certain birds in the years before.

Webster's observation was a surprise -- and a troubling one. It suggested an origin of the unusually virulent strains of influenza virus that appear two or three times each century. His hunch, that at least some of these pandemic strains were hybrids of bird and human flu viruses, was correct.
Basically, this guy is the pro from Dover. And he is worried about what he is seeing.
Strains of influenza virus known as A/H5N1 have been spreading in wild and domestic birds across Southeast Asia and China since 1996. In recent weeks, the virus has apparently struck poultry in Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Since late 2003, about 100 million domesticated birds -- mostly chickens and ducks -- either have died of the virus or have been intentionally killed to keep the viruses from spreading. But what has Webster and other experts so worried are the 112 people who have been infected with the H5N1 "bird flu," more than half of whom have died. The fatality rate of 55 percent outstrips any human flu epidemic on record, including the epochal Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 that killed at least 50 million people.

Why this new virus is so deadly is not entirely understood, although scientists have hints.

Influenza viruses invade cells lining the throat and windpipe, where they replicate and cause inflammation but are eventually suppressed by the immune system. In some cases, the microbe invades the lungs and leads to viral or bacterial pneumonia. Some H5N1 strains, however, have two features that make them even more dangerous.

Normally, the flu viruses can replicate only in the throat and lungs. With H5N1, however, the protein that triggers replication can be activated in many other organs, including the liver, intestines and brain. What is usually a respiratory infection can suddenly become a whole-body infection. Simultaneously, a second "defect" in the virus unleashes a storm of immune-system chemicals called cytokines. In normal amounts, cytokines help fight microbial invaders. In excessive amounts, they can cause lethal damage to the body's own tissues.

The trait H5N1 has not acquired is the ability to spread easily from person to person. The 112 human cases since late 2003 may turn out to be simply rare events in a bird epidemic that will eventually subside, as all epidemics do.

What is worrisome, though, is evidence pointing the other way.
So now the race is on - for scientists to understand and describe the virus before it may mutate into a real people-killer.

The article is definitely a worthwhile read. I'd be particularly interested in feedback from our resident biology expert. I guess we need to recruit a nurse and/or a doc to the Wasatch Front next, huh?

Earlier on The Wasatch Front:
"Avian Flu Pandemic: Genuine Concern or Hype?"


At 3:37 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Lucky for us, the virus is still lethal enough to kill a large percentage of its hosts very quickly (this actually prevents it from spreading).

I don't think the scientific or medical community can be ready for this virus. Influenza mutates too quickly. What can you do to prepare? Eat healthy and exercise so that your immune system is stronger. Keep an adequate food storage so that you don't have to go out in public if there is an outbreak. Finally, repent... because if you do get it, your days may be numbered.

At 5:07 PM, Blogger Tyler said...

Thanks a lot, Nate.

"There's no need to panic. But you're all going to die."

Okay, time to read that 1918 flu book I found. You're scaring the bejeezus out of me.

More seriously, the preparation steps you recommend are a good idea - inclluding the ffod storage.

Quarantine is probably the best weapon that can realistically be used against the flu - it worked in 1918. The fewer people get sick, the better chance hospitals will have to keep up with the severely ill and have the resources to treat the secondary infections (i.e. pneumonia).

Now to go stock up on canned goods and shotguns...

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Maine Man said...

Shotguns? Is that for all of the flu virus-caused zombies? Is this part of The Niem's bid to take over the world?

At 11:08 PM, Blogger e.gage said...

I sneezed today.

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Tyler said...

Ahhh! Quarantine Moscow, Idaho! It's started!

Repent! Your judgement is at hand!


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