Monday, December 12, 2005

Another Piece of the Bird Flu Puzzle Falls Into Place

It's not a matter of if, but of when:
Death toll from bird flu hits 70 as Thai boy dies
Fri Dec 9, 2005 11:21 PM ET

By Panarat Thepgumpanat and Maggie Fox
[...]The death of the 5-year-old boy from the central province of Nakhon Nayok, 110 km (70 miles) from Bangkok, took Thailand's bird flu death toll to 14 out of 22 known cases since the virus swept through large parts of Asia in late 2003.

It was not certain how the boy caught the virus, which usually strikes those in close contact with infected fowl or their droppings. The boy, who died in hospital on Wednesday, was not known to have had direct contact with chickens.

"We believe that the boy contracted the virus from his surroundings because, although his family does not raise chickens, there are chickens raised in his neighborhood," said Thawat Suntrajarn, head of the Health Ministry's Disease Control Department.
While there's some relief to be had from the fact that there are chickens raised in the boy's neighborhood, my eyebrow was raised from the fact that the boy's family did not raise chickens, nor was there any known direct contact between the chickens and the boy.

Meaning the disease might now be airborne, a development that scientists have feared for a long time.

The National Geographic channel had a marvelous program last night called Race Against The Killer Flu (likely it will be rebroadcast many times), in which the striking piece of information was the speed at which this particular virus mutates.

All viruses, based on unstable RNA, will mutate and often. That's why there's no cure for the common cold, and why flu vaccines have to be updated annually. This particular virus, the H5N1, mutates at an alarming rate.

Just a month ago, it was reported that the virus would require a pig to mutate into the mammalian form. Now it turns out that it can mutate in any mammal, including humans. Five tigers died from exposure to the avian flu in a zoo in Southeast Asia this fall.

It's coming. It's just a matter of when.