Geoffrey Lean: The facts behind the three bird flu myths

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The Independent Online

Yet alarm is premature. There is indeed a danger that the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, now spreading rapidly round the world, will turn into a pandemic that will kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Britons: indeed the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, last week described some such pandemic as "inevitable". But that is in the future. Now is the time to expose some bird flu myths.

The dead parrot has brought the pandemic to Britain.

Absolutely false. The H5N1 strain has not yet become highly infectious to people. At present it is mainly a disease of birds, and though some 120 people have caught it, the virus does not yet spread easily to humans.

The danger will probably begin when someone catches it who already has the ordinary flu, thus allowing the two viruses to combine - producing a new strain that is both deadly and extremely infectious This is most likely to happen in Asia, where H5N1 is widespread, and the new strain will probably be brought here by international travel. Yet it makes sense to try to limit the spread of the present virus, whether from the wild bird trade or migrating wildfowl. As it increases, so do the chances of someone with the ordinary flu catching it, and sparking a pandemic.

The ordinary flu jab will protect me.

False too. Vaccines have to be precisely designed to kill each particular virus. So scientists cannot even start work on producing one to stop a pandemic until its highly infectious strain emerges. All the same, vaccines are being developed against the strain at present mainly infecting birds in the hope that it might offer some limited protection against a pandemic strain and blunt its effects. But the normal flu jab is designed to beat a wholly different flu virus, and is ineffective against bird flu.

Eating chicken will give me bird flu.

False again. Cooking kills the virus, even if the chicken is infected in the first place. Drinking a soup of raw duck's blood, a Vietnamese delicacy, did help to spread the disease in South-east Asia - but it is not exactly common on British menus.

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