Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Could We Be Reaching The Avian Flu Nexus?

While reading this article at Newsday.com, I came across this tidbit:
To be sure, the H5N1 strain hasn't found its way to the U.S., and local health officials say they're closely watching the flocks and say the New York markets are safe. One expert said the state has stringent standards in place for monitoring and testing the birds. And for now, the disease is just one subtype of flu virus that typically infects fowl, so the risk to humans remains low.

But the disease has spread from Asia to birds in other countries, including Russia and Croatia, and outbreaks are expected in Africa as birds migrate south. If the virus were to begin to transmit easily among humans, health officials fear it could launch a pandemic, threatening millions of people worldwide.

Health experts blame the human cases in Asia on close contact between humans and birds at the small farms that sell poultry to live markets. That leaves some health officials here wondering whether workers at New York State's approximately 100 live poultry markets -- the most of any state in the U.S. -- need to take more precautions.
(emphasis added)

It seems to me that the cradle of mankind holds the key to just about any really nasty virus that affects mankind, likely because of the enormous headstart viruses have had there in learning to cope with human immunodefenses (on the order of millions of years), as well as the unique way that viruses can mutate on an RNA-based transfer of genetic material. While avian flus in general originate in Asia, (not sure why, but the last outbreak in 1968 was given the moniker "Hong Kong Flu," and while the 1918 outbreak was called the "Spanish Flu," the world was somewhat distracted by its first global war, and probably missed the originating outbreak) contact with Africa in the past has been nominal, with the flu viruses spreading to Europe and the Americas long before Africa was affected.

The reason? Slower global transportation meant that the flu was transferred out of Asia far slower and ended up in Europe and the Americas long after birds had migrated south. This year, we've already seen outbreaks in Russia, Croatia, France, Germany and the UK, meaning that birds not yet in transit will have come in contact with the virus carried by international passengers and freighted livestock.

Going to be an interesting spring.