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Bird flu how much should we worry?

Quite often I have been asked if I am worried about the bird flu. I have mostly answered that, no, I do not worry, giving the reason that there is little I, on my own, can do at this moment. I say that I trust the health authorities in the country. I must trust them, they are in charge of peoples health, and if there is reason to be alarmed, they will tell me what to do. This is my belief.

At the moment there is no reason to panic, and there may never be either. Until mid March there had been, officially confirmed, 177 people infected with the disease. According to WHO (World Health Organisation) 98 of them had died. All these people lived in areas where people live close together and where many keep small poultry flocks, which often roam freely, sometimes entering homes or sharing outdoor areas where children play. Infected birds shed large quantities of virus in their faeces; consequently opportunities for exposure to infected droppings are significant. Knowing how many households like this there are around the world, 177 cases is not a lot.

The danger lies in the fact that the “bird flu”, or avian influenza virus named H5N1, mutates; and some day it may mutate from being an influenza virus very hard to catch, to something that is easily spread from human to human through sneezing or coughing. This is what is called a pandemic risk. The risk increases with every additional human case giving the virus an opportunity to improve its transmissibility in humans. If a person caught the human flu virus and the avian flu virus at the same time, the virus might exchange genes and this could create a new virus that could be passed easily between humans. Migrating birds, and import of exotic birds, is spreading the virus across the world, broadening opportunities for human cases to occur. This way the probability that a pandemic will occur has increased. But there is always the chance that it never mutates to move from human to human, or it may happen in 30 – 40 years, though this is not very likely.

To tell us how serious the USA takes this, they have set aside 7 billion dollars to fight the virus.

Every year many people suffer from flu and many die from it. The difference between an ordinary flu and the bird flu is that the bird flu affects the lungs in a much more severe way. It penetrates through the mucus membranes and can therefore easily spread to other organs in the body.

At the moment we have drugs that may improve prospects of survival. These are known commercially as Tamiflu and Relenza. To be effective, they need to be taken within 24 hours after the first symptoms occur. Normally virus infections cannot be treated with antibiotics. Nonetheless, since influenza is often complicated by bacterial infection of the lungs, antibiotics can be life-saving.

According to WHO the world is not adequately prepared. And, not surprisingly, most developing countries will have little access to vaccines and antiviral drugs throughout the duration of a pandemic.

Another question often asked is if it still is safe to eat poultry and poultry products. And yes, it is! In areas free of the disease, poultry can be prepared and consumed as normal. In areas experiencing outbreaks, poultry and poultry products can also be safely consumed provided these items are properly cooked and properly handled during the preparation. The N5H1 virus is sensitive to heat, and temperature above 70 degrees Celsius will kill the virus. Care should always be taken when handling raw poultry, and good hand hygiene and keeping the working surfaces clean and the raw poultry away from other food is important, even without a threatening pandemic. If you have any comments or questions, please call me at 628 223 445 or write me at


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