Public Health

Is Bird Flu Back, Or Did It Never Go Away?

Just as your worries have faded about swine flu, today at the International Ministerial Conference on Animal and Pandemic Influenza in Hanoi, Vietnam, an infectious diseases expert is raising red flags about the ongoing presence of H5N1, also known as avian flu.

Baby's feet and mother's hands. i

A caged chicken at a market in Vietnam, one of the countries where the H5N1 virus is still around. Chitose Suzuki/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Chitose Suzuki/AP
Baby's feet and mother's hands.

A caged chicken at a market in Vietnam, one of the countries where the H5N1 virus is still around.

Chitose Suzuki/AP

That other H-something N-something virus continues to be a "serious menace" even though bird flu has mostly been eliminated from the 63 countries it infected during the high-point of the global outbreak in 2006, according to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Juan Lubroth.

At a recent conference, Lubroth said bird flu is still present in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam. Just a few days ago a 22-year-old man and a 2-year-old tested positive for the virus in Bac Can province in Vietnam, Reuters reports.

"As long as it is present in even one country, there is still a public health risk to be taken seriously," he said. "We should not forget that it has killed 292 humans, killed or forced the culling of more than 260 million birds, caused an estimated $20 billion of economic damage across the globe and devastated livelihoods at the family-farm level."

Bird flu has stayed under the radar for the last few years, especially with the rise of new H1N1, or swine flu, virus in 2009.

But journalist Alan Sipress has been paying attention. He traveled to nine Asian countries tracking the bird flu outbreak, wrote a book on the subject and highlighted its danger in a Washington Post op-ed late last year. "Unlike swine flu, which is no worse than a seasonal flu bug for most people, bird flu kills more than half of those who contract it....And even more than swine flu, bird flu preys on the young and healthy, ravaging their lungs, a modus operandi reminiscent of the 1918 flu that killed as many as 50 million people."

Crawford Killian, a former college professor in Canada, obsessively documents news and updates about avian flu on his H5N1 blog. "I started flu blogging [in 2005] as a way to teach myself something about a disease that looked pretty ominous. One thing led to another... and covering H5N1 has taught me it's just part of a larger problem—the impact of infectious diseases on societies and economies both rich and poor," he says.

Killian, who is currently a contributing editor at The Tyee - a British Columbia news website - says Lubroth's comments today raise more questions. "Why did it seem to vanish from Pakistan, but not from Egypt? Are some authorities doing the right thing while others aren't? This is a question worth pursuing in itself."

Schiff is a reporter at Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.



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