Bird Flu: What's the Risk?

Posted on May 31, 2006

By now everyone has heard about H5N1 bird flu, the virus that has been killing birds and some people in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The total number of people infected and killed so far is pretty low. The latest bird flu case report from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows a total of 224 human cases with 127 deaths over the past three years. A small figure but with a very high death rate. The risk from bird flu is extremely serious. Infectious disease experts fear that the disease could mutate and acquire the ability the transmit easily from person to person. This is called human-to-human transmission or H2H. The serious threat raised by H5N1 is why media outlets are closely falling the developments of the disease. It is also why the WHO has been rating the disease's progress using Pandemic Alert phases. Currently, we are at level 3 with H5N1.

One reason scientists believe bird flu could mutate and become a worldwide pandemic is that it has happened before. In 1918 a deadly influenza outbreak killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. It killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. in a very short time period. If a similar event were to happen today not only would millions of Americans be killed but commerce, transportation and public services could shut down as many are killed or sickened by the disease. Hospitals would be quickly overwhelmed. This is what the experts fear most: a repeat of 1918. An outbreak like this could also have secondary problems like people dying from food shortages and even anarchy in some countries. The best book written about the 1918 influenza outbreak is The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History by John M. Barry.

No one really knows for sure what is going to happen. It is possible that H5N1 may never mutate. It is possible that it could mutate and H2H transmissions could begin but we are able to stop it with aggressive quarantines. It also possible that H2H transmissions will start and we will not be able to stop it and the disease will spread worldwide killing hundreds of millions of people. That is the greatest risk from bird flu.

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