Avian flu and hysteria: the myths and the realities


Is it inevitable that H5N1 will reach Britain?

No, but the Government have admitted that the discovery of a dead bird near Lyon has made it more likely that it could. Government advisers say the risk is low but warn that we must remain vigilant.

How did this start and where is it going?

H5N1, the current lethal strain, emerged in mid-2003 in South-east Asia, where most of the human deaths have occurred. H5N1 is considered to be endemic among birds in parts of Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Countries as widespread as Turkey, Japan and Egypt have reported outbreaks. And it has now reached Europe.

What is the difference between the current bird flu outbreak and a potential human pandemic?

Bird flu has spread through poultry flocks worldwide and some humans who have come into direct contact with infected poultry have contracted it and died. The big fear is that it will mutate into a lethal strain of human-to-human flu, but there is no evidence of this yet.

What is the human death toll so far and what would happen if a pandemic occurred?

There have been 92 known deaths worldwide since the latest outbreak in 2003. The World Health Organisation estimates that a mild pandemic could cause between 2 million and 7.5 million deaths. Human flu already claims between 13,000 and 26,000 lives in the UK every year. If the strain is less virulent it could lead to widespread infection but a low death rate.

Does the Government have plans in place?

A central register for commercial keepers with 50 or more birds was set up in December, with bird owners given 12 weeks to sign up or face a £5,000 fine. If a wild bird is found to have the disease in Britain, a two-mile exclusion zone will be enforced, with a 10-mile surveillance zone. Inside the exclusion zone, all poultry movements will be halted and, where infected birds are found, the entire flock will face being culled.

How do humans contract bird flu and how lethal is it?

The lethal H5N1 strain of avian influenza which is causing concern can only be transmitted to humans through direct contact with infected birds. But scientists are concerned that the virus could mutate into a form which can spread from person to person.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include a sore throat, aching muscles, lethargy, eye infections, breathing problems and chest pain. In its most aggressive form, it leads to pneumonia and multiple organ failure.

What about a vaccination?

As a vaccine cannot be developed until the pandemic strain emerges, it would take time before the first immunisations could take place. Scientists have developed a generic H5N1 avian flu vaccine which could lessen the impact. Anti-viral drugs, such as Tamiflu, can lessen the severity of the illness and save lives. The Government is stockpiling 14.6 million courses of these. In the event of a pandemic, there are also plans to vaccinate the whole British population which would require doses each.

Can it be contracted by eating infected poultry?

Cooking destroys the virus in poultry and eggs though handling raw infected meat could transmit the virus.

What could this mean for the poultry industry?

If avian flu reaches British shores it is predicted to spell economic disaster for the industry. However, the National Farmers' Union is adamant that sufficient contingency plans are in place to contain any outbreak.

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