Bird Flu: The Threat of Animal to Human Transmission

When bird flu hit most Asian countries, it prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to urge China to test its wild birds, particularly geese that migrate from its waters during the harsh winter. The disease spread so fast from one bird to another that about 5,000 birds were killed in one season. People who have close or direct contact to infected poultry can contract the disease after coming in contact with bird secretions or feces.

Although many are divided on the possibility of direct human to human transmission of the virus, this possibility has not been ruled out. Viruses, in general, are known to mutate. In the case of bird flu, family members infected with it may show different severity of symptoms, prompting a misdiagnosis. Also, if a person who has the common flu becomes infected with bird flu at the same time, it can lead to the mutation of the bird flu virus.

At the University of Leicester in Great Britain, it was discovered that a full-blown bird flu pandemic could cause an 80% mortality rate. A team led by Karl Nicholson is developing the bird flu vaccine with the goal of decreasing the fatality should a fourth major pandemic occur. In the last century, there have been three recorded major pandemics: the Spanish Flu in 1918, the Asian Flu in 1957 and the Hong Kong Flu in 1968. In total, the three pandemics claimed at least 20 million people.

The bird flu virus, which can be transmitted through direct contact with a bird’s infected saliva, nasal secretions and feces, can survive for up to a week at 22 degrees Celsius. At freezing temperatures, the virus can survive indefinitely. It is no surprise that the bird flu virus tends to last in colder climates and is pronounced to be almost as deadly as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). In addition to the transmission of the disease from the migration of wild birds traveling great distances, the disease is also spread when contaminated birds are exported and imported in the international market.

In terms of safety in food handling and preparation, a cooking temperature of about 70 degrees Celsius is enough to kill the bird flu virus. It is important, however, to avoid raw birds and other raw markets meats from being contaminated. Cook eggs properly and check that the yolks are not runny. The simple act of washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling raw meats could spell the difference. Keep in mind that transmission of the bird flu virus to humans usually happens during the slaughtering process and handling of infected bird fluids. After slaughtering infected poultry, the virus typically stays in the intestinal and respiratory tracts, not in the meat itself. Cooking at right temperatures can help avoid the virus from spreading.

The symptoms of bird flu are very similar to human flu. However, the severity of a disease can sometimes give way to announcements of a pandemic, which can cause political issues. In Asia where the incidence and actual cases of human transmission of bird flu occurred, WHO and the United States immediately took precautionary measures. The British Medical Journal, on the other hand, declared that a pandemic is still far from happening.

No travel advisory has been issued restricting anyone from going to countries affected by bird flu although WHO has issued a warning to travelers. Travelers are advised against going to live poultry markets, getting close contact to any farms and having direct exposure to feathers, feces or droppings, eggs and poultry meat products. Travelers coming from afflicted countries are also not being screened. However, precautionary measures are in place, particularly in the media. Information is being disseminated in order to make people aware of the bird flu, its effects and what to do to avoid getting infected.

Viruses are constantly mutating and evolving. Health watchers, practitioners and scientists are concerned about this because if a pandemic occurs, there won’t be enough time to prepare and develop a vaccine. They fear that we are once again on the brink of another major pandemic threat. However, with the strides being made by technology every day, hopefully the casualty won’t be nearly as high as the casualty of the past three major pandemics that claimed at least 20 million lives worldwide.

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