Be afraid, but don't panic


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Category: Health Care Date: 15 Jan 06


Dead chickens scattered across the front page of Wednesday’s Guardian, with the question mark of avian influenza, sent a shudder of ominous dread to us all.


The assurances by the Ministries of Agriculture and Health that the thousands of dead and dying chickens in a Cumuto farm were not infected with the deadly bird flu, but with a fungal disease—aspergillosis—was not enough to send away the jitters about dead birds in T&T.


Our anxiety is justifiably fuelled by simultaneous reports out of Turkey of fears after the deaths of two people from the virus, that despite massive culling, the bird flu could become “endemic” there.


The UN expressed the fear that the virus was spreading in Turkey, despite “control measures.”


What is this virus and why should we be afraid if it’s all the way in Turkey? We should be afraid. Not “panic afraid,” but “prepared afraid.” Why?


Scientists have predicted that should the bird flu mutate into a flu that can be passed between human beings, the devastation, and loss to human life will be worse than any nuclear, terrorist or natural disaster ever imagined.


Estimates of the number of possible victims of a catastrophic global pandemic range from 7.4 to 150 million people.


You ask, as I did, what is it and how can it be passed on? This is what my research revealed: Avian influenza, known as bird flu, is a contagious viral disease in animals, caused by a virus loosely related to human influenza.


The H5N1 form of bird flu is the most dangerous. It is extremely contagious among birds, both by air and contact with faeces. Mortality is close to 100 per cent, many birds dying on the same day of infection.


The latest bird flu outbreak, which started in 2003, has affected mostly Asia, where millions of birds have died after contracting the disease or have been destroyed in measures to prevent it spreading.


Since the end of 2003, cases have been recorded in Thailand, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, South Korea, Mongolia, Japan and Kazakhstan. In August, it was confirmed in Russia.


Since then, there have been confirmed outbreaks of H5N1 in Taiwan, Croatia, Turkey and Romania, as well as an H5 outbreak in Greece.


Scientists feared that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form easily transmissible between people, unleashing a flu pandemic which they say is “overdue” by 20 years. Then humans began contracting the flu from birds.


By the second week of January, more than 145 humans in Asia and, more recently, Turkey, had been infected by the H5N1 strain. Seventy-five humans died.


So far, most human deaths have been in communities in which people live in close proximity to poultry. Breathing in dust from the faeces of sick fowls or handling them is believed to be the main way in which the virus spreads to people.


The latest Turkish bird flu victims were in close contact with poultry and many, failing to recognise signs of the disease, had eaten sick birds.


Scientists say that the more humans suffer from the virus the greater the risk that it will be transmitted from humans to humans and then spread as easily as the common cold.


All nations are worried. Many countries are putting contingency plans into place. The British department of health’s plan, which includes stocking up on the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, candidly calculates that “between 21,000 and 700,000 deaths could be expected in Britain from a flu pandemic.


“One-quarter of the population could become infected, and another quarter would need to care for them.” Are we worried? Maybe.


A medical source says the Ministry of Health, with visiting epidemiologists, has conducted some lectures for the medical fraternity.


They showed a map of the infected birds’ flight plan. They predicted that some infected birds would get lost this year, or early next year, and may find themselves in this part of the world.


There were no guarantees, they said, that we wouldn’t be affected, by a “strain” in an infected bird. No guarantees that we won’t be affected in case the virus mutates from a bird to human virus to a human to human pandemic.


Do we have a contingency plan? Are we stocked up on Tamiflu? Have we calculated how many deaths can be expected?


Only God and the Ministry of Health knows.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur