Bird flu threat justifies precautions
State and federal health officials are testing passengers arriving at Honolulu Airport for signs of avian influenza.
INDIFFERENCE about the outbreak of a flu strain is widespread because it has been confined to birds or humans who came into direct contact with infected birds. However, the avian flu that originated in Asia and has entered Eastern Europe has a catastrophic potential. Measures by health officials
who have begun to test passengers arriving with flu-like symptoms at Honolulu Airport, Asia's gateway to America, are warranted.
President Bush recently outlined a $7.1 billion program to stockpile vaccines and antiviral drugs to respond to any future avian flu outbreak. The World Bank this week announced a $500 million loan program to provide financing to poor Southeast Asian countries to combat an outbreak.
Millions of birds have died from the virus, called H5N1. It has infected 124 people and killed 64. However, the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine reported in March that the "current ongoing epidemic of H5N1 avian influenza in Asia is unprecedented in it scale, in its spread and in the economic losses it has caused."
Its potential won't be realized unless it becomes capable of transmission from one person to another. That might occur when a person already sick with human flu comes into contact with a bird infected with the avian flu, and the two flus create a new virus with genes from each, according to Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College in London.
"Such viral hanky-panky is thought to have led to the flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968," Judson wrote for the New York Times. "Or the virus could mutate -- acquire accidental changes to its genetic material -- in such a way that it becomes able to travel between people."
Such a mutation is believed to have triggered the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which resulted in more than 20 million human deaths. Clearly, this is much ado about something that could be disastrous.
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