Health: Wising up to the threat of bird flu

Recently members from the Great Lakes member states gathered in Burundi capital Bujumbura to discuss how to pass the information concerning bird flu to their respective citizens.
Chickens are particularly susceptible to bird flu.
Chickens are particularly susceptible to bird flu.

Recently members from the Great Lakes member states gathered in Burundi capital Bujumbura to discuss how to pass the information concerning bird flu to their respective citizens.

The great lakes region has not yet been affected by the bird influenza virus but member countries are keen to have precautions in place.

Robert Bounkoungou, a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) consultant from Burkina Faso, led of the conference that ended last month.

Bounkoungou said that communication about bird flu was very important for our societies to prevent the spread of the disease.

What is bird flu?

Like humans and other species, birds are susceptible to flu. H5 and H7, which are usually fatal in birds, are the most contagious of the many types of bird, or avian, flu.

There are nine different types of H5. The nine all take different forms - some are highly pathogenic, while some are pretty harmless. The type currently causing concern is the "highly pathogenic" Asian strain of the H5N1 virus.

Scientists have discovered four different subtypes of H5N1, and there could well be more. However, all are deadly to birds, and can cause disease - and death - in humans.

This said it is important to stress that H5N1 is overwhelmingly a disease that affects birds - and not humans.

It is true that humans have been infected, but almost all have been poultry workers who have come into intimate contact with birds. H5N1 cannot pass easily from human to human.

Migratory wildfowl, notably wild ducks, are natural carriers of the viruses, but are unlikely to actually develop an infection. The risk is that they pass it on to domestic birds, who are much more susceptible to the virus.

How do humans catch bird flu?

Bird flu was thought only to infect birds until the first human cases were seen in Hong Kong in 1997. Humans catch the disease through close contact with live infected birds.

Birds excrete the virus in their faeces, which dry and become pulverised, and are then inhaled. Symptoms are similar to other types of flu - fever, malaise, sore throats and coughs. People can also develop conjunctivitis.

Researchers are now concerned because scientists studying a case in Vietnam found the virus can affect all parts of the body, not just the lungs.

This could mean that many illnesses, and even deaths, thought to have been caused by something else, may have been due to the bird flu virus.

Is it possible to stop bird flu coming into a country?

There is no failsafe way of preventing its spread. Experts say proper poultry controls - such as preventing wild birds getting in to poultry houses - are vital.

In addition, they say monitoring of the migratory patterns of wild birds should provide early alerts of the arrival of infected flocks - meaning they could be targeted on arrival.

How many people have been affected?

As of January 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) had confirmed 348 cases of H5N1 in humans in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam, leading to 216 deaths.

How quickly is the disease spreading?

After bird flu claimed its first human victim - a three-year-old boy in Hong Kong in May 1997 - the disease was not detected again until February 2003, when a father and son were diagnosed with H5N1, again in Hong Kong.

Since then it has spread westwards through Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Despite mass culls, exclusion zones and other measures put in place to prevent its spread, the H5N1 virus has continued to travel.

In one week in February 2006, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Germany, Austria, France, Slovenia, India, Iran and Egypt confirmed their first cases of H5N1 in wild birds.

In April 2005, a dead swan in Scotland was found to have the strain.

Can bird flu be prevented?

Doctor Karasira Anicet is a veterinary medical practitioner working with the food and agriculture organization. He says that although efforts are constantly being made to research and produce effective medical treatment and vaccine for bird flu, the viruses are expected to cause many more infections before it is under control.

Doctor Karasira Anicet says that prevention of the disease is possible. He says that Avian influenza is not an isolated problem anymore. The virus can span across an entire continent in a matter of months and areas that were once safe can quickly come under threat.

So for travelers in general, but especially for those going to high risk zones such as Southeast Asia or any other region where bird flu outbreaks have been spotted need to follow some guidelines such as; avoid any close contact with domesticated birds.

Fowl is the most frequent source of the virus spread, washing hands immediately to avoid contamination, avoid taking raw eggs and eating a well cooked poultry.

Stenbock Oleg is a poultry farmer living in Kabuye was among those who attended the conference in Bujumbura explained that “in flocks where infection is found, all birds are killed to prevent the spread of the virus to other farms. It is a strategy that has kept bird flu largely under control in many countries affected by the pandemic.”

Can bird flu be treated?

Doctor Karasira Anicet says that as with all flues, the basic medical advice in the case of suspicions or confirmations of a bird flu infection is plenty of rest and drinking lots of liquids.

Antiviral medication may help in relieving some of the symptoms, but antibiotics such as penicillin are not effective.

By use of certain proteins contained in the virus, scientists have been able to produce antibodies which could effectively fight off the virus.

Also, they are attempting to create an orally or nasally administrated influenza vaccine. This would prove an immense help for the way third world countries treat bird flu, as it would eliminate the need for expensive or specialized medical equipment and staff.