I’m not entirely convinced that bird flu (avian influenza) is going to be the next big emergent disease that will wipe out thousands, if not millions, of people across the globe. SARS, after all, had nothing to do with avians, nor does HIV, and certainly not malaria, tuberculosis, MRSA, Escherichia coli O157, or any of dozens of virulent strains of disease that have and are killing millions of people.
There are just so many different types of host within which novel microbial organisms and parasites might be lurking, just waiting for humans to impinge on their marginal domains, to chop down that last tree, to hunt their predators to extinction, and to wreak all-round environmental habitat on their ecosystems, that it is actually only a matter of time before something far worse than avian influenza crawls out from under the metaphorical rock.
In the meantime, there is plenty to worry about on the bird flu front, but perhaps nothing for us to get into too much of a flap over, just yet.
According to a report on Australia’s ABC news, researchers have found that the infamous H5N1 strain of bird flu (which is deadly to birds) can mix with the common-or-garden human influenza virus. The news report tells us worryingly that, “A mutated virus combining human flu and bird flu is the nightmare strain which scientists fear could create a worldwide pandemic.”
Of course, the scientists have not discovered this mutant strain in the wild, they have simply demonstrated that it can happen in the proverbial Petri dish.
Meanwhile, bootiful UK turkey company – Bernard Matthews Foods – has called for an early warning system for impending invasions of avian influenza. A feature in Farmers Weekly Interactive says the company is urging the government and poultry industry to work together to establish an early warning system for migratory birds that may carry H5N1 avian flu. “Armed with this knowledge, free range turkey producers would be able to take measures to avoid contact between wild birds and poultry.” That’s all well and good, but what if a mutant strain really does emerge that also happens to be carried by wild (and domesticated birds) or, more scarily by another species altogether? Then, no amount of H5N1 monitoring is going to protect those roaming turkeys.
While all this is going on, the Washington Post reports that the Hong Kong authorities announced Wednesday (June 10) that they are going to cull poultry in the territory’s retail markets because of fears of a dangerous bird flu outbreak. H5N1 virus was detected in chickens being sold from a stall in the Kowloon area and 2700 birds were slaughtered there to prevent its spread. In closely related news, the International Herald Tribune has reported that there has been an outbreak of bird flu in North Korea. “Bird flu has broken out near a North Korean military base in the first reported case of the disease in the country since 2005, a South Korean aid group said Wednesday.” But, note, “since 2005″, which means it happened before, and we didn’t then see the rapid emergence of the killer strain the media scaremongers are almost choking to see.
Finally, the ever-intriguing Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported, with the rather uninspiring headline: Test shows bird flu in hens. Apparently, a sample from a hen flock destroyed near West Fork, Arkansas, tested positive for avian influenza. A little lower down the page we learn that the strain involved is the far less worrisome H7N3. So, avian influenza is yet to crack the US big time. Thankfully.