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The persistence of this H5N1 strain of virus is a great concern for humans. Although the virus does not spread from birds to humans easily, the severity of the infection of H5N1 in humans is frightening. The virus has killed every second person infected by it. These cases were reported in perfectly healthy individuals who had no past history of infections. However the greater concern for the world is the POSSIBILITY THAT THE VIRUS MAY MUTATE (UNDERGO ANTIGENIC SHIFT) AND CREATE A FORM THAT MAY SPREAD FROM HUMAN TO HUMAN. Such a strain of virus may result in a pandemic, killing millions of people worldwide.
Is Consumption Of Poultry Birds Safe?
Yes, it is safe to consume THOROUGHLY COOKED poultry products. The H5N1 virus is sensitive to heat and gets destroyed by normal cooking temperatures of 70- 100 degree Celsius. If meat from poultry birds and eggs are cooked properly, the virus will be destroyed. Just make sure that no part of the meat remains raw or uncooked.
How Big Is The Risk Of A Pandemic Breaking Out?
The world had to face a Bird Flu Pandemic, thrice in the twentieth century. In 1918-1919, "Spanish Flu" killed anywhere between 20 million to 50 million people (exact figures not known), including half a million in the United States alone. The "Asian flu" in 1957-58 killed 70,000 in the United States and in 1968-1969, the "Hong Kong flu" killed 34,000 in the USA.
Currently the risk of H5N1 strain leading to a Pandemic is high. The virus is spreading fast to new areas and the efforts made to curtail it have proved inadequate.
Domestic ducks have now become a "reservoir" for the virus. They are acting like a carrier for the virus - their bodies carry the virus without showing signs of any infection. Infected ducks then release large quantities of the virus in pathogenic form in their excretions spreading the virus to other birds or humans. This has made detection of the virus difficult especially in rural areas.
According to health experts, the virus has already met the first two prerequisites for starting a pandemic. First it has attained a form, for which humans have no inbuilt immunity; and second, it has proved pathogenic enough to cause serious illness and death in humans.
The present risk of a pandemic is very high. The only factor that has prevented a pandemic so far is that the virus has not mutated into a form that would allow it to transmit efficiently from one human to another. Once such a genetic change takes place for the virus, a pandemic will be inevitable. The first signs of such a reassortment will be presence of the clusters of patients with flu symptoms, closely related - both in time and space. This would be a clear indication of virus having the ability to transmit from human-to-human.
Currently no vaccine has been developed for fighting H5N1 strain. Simultaneous work is being done in many countries for developing a vaccine, but no success has been achieved. The exact virus that may cause the pandemic cannot be predetermined. Thus mass production of vaccine before the pandemic starts is ruled out. The worldwide manufacturing capacity is inadequate to match the sudden demand surge during a pandemic. The best that scientists can do is to carry out a study and determine the smallest amount of antigen per dose that will provide sufficient protection and thus maximise the number of vaccines produced.
What Are The Precautions Necessary To Prevent A Pandemic?
The logical first step is to control the disease from spreading among birds, but this seems a difficult task now. Bird Flu has become a bird epidemic in many parts of Asia and is spreading fast.
The Next step is to prevent the disease from getting passed on to humans. People who come in close contact with birds (like poultry farmers) are advised to keep a close watch on the health of birds, notify any sort of sickness in birds to the health authorities and avoid direct contact with sick birds in all cases. (Ducks have become a reservoir for the virus and may not exhibit signs of sickness even if they are carrying the virus.)
In case the flu becomes a pandemic, most countries of the world will be affected. In such a scenario, the best preventive measures would be personal hygiene, avoiding crowded places and staying away from raw meat and eggs.
A flu shot does not prevent bird flu, but it can protect a person from other forms of flu and avoid complications. Persons above 65 years of age, children, health services workers, people with chronic respiratory disorders, travellers to flu affected countries and pregnant women may consult a doctor regarding flu vaccination.