Avian flu: 'We're screwed' if it hits soon
Health experts and officials shook up a breakfast meeting in Washington this morning with more alarm over what they see is an inevitable avian influenza pandemic and public-health emergency. Also today, World Health Organization officials confirmed the first case of avian flu in a farmworker in the island nation of Indonesia. Known as avian flu because it infects primarily chickens and waterfowl, the officials fear that the virus will mutate and become a human disease. Because this strain has never circulated through the human population, people would have no innate immunity if they were infected. Officials compare the virus to the 1918 pandemic that hit one third of the population and killed between 1 and 5 percent of those infected. This strain, known as H5N1, could be at least that deadly and perhaps more so, especially for young and healthy people who would very likely die from an immune system reaction to the disease, as happened in 1918. Today, if the pandemic hit, the number of dead could be as high as 360 million worldwide.
"You can get rid of the 'if' because it's going to occur," said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It may not occur this year, or next, he said, "but [the threat] is not going to go away." The disease has currently crossed over to humans in Asia, but only among people who have very close contact with chickens or who take care of the sick. It has killed at least 54 people in Asia but is not now communicable in the way that the more common and less lethal human influenza viruses are.
The virus "is due to spin out of this bird population" that it currently infects, said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota. When it does, the fast pace of global transportation and trade is sure to carry it around the world in a matter of days if not hours, the officials said. And while most states have plans in place to deal with public-health emergencies, many of those plans have yet to be tested in real or simulated situations. If the pandemic were to hit today, said Osterholm, "I don't know what we could do about it except say, 'We're screwed.'"