If the H5N1 virus were to evolve (mutate) so that infected humans could pass the virus onto other humans, the effects would be devastating on a world scale. At the moment, the H5N1 virus has infected many birds and some humans in Asia, especially South East Asia.
Julie Gerberding said a flu pandemic born from the H5N1 virus would last much longer than current seasonal flu epidemics. This one could prevail throughout the year.
Countries worst hit by the H5N1 virus (which can only be transmitted to humans from birds) are Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and to a certain extent, China.
Why H5N1 is of particular concern
Of the 15 avian influenza virus subtypes, H5N1 is of particular concern for several reasons. H5N1 mutates rapidly and has a documented propensity to acquire genes from viruses infecting other animal species. Its ability to cause severe disease in humans has now been documented on two occasions. In addition, laboratory studies have demonstrated that isolates from this virus have a high pathogenicity and can cause severe disease in humans. Birds that survive infection excrete virus for at least 10 days, orally and in faeces, thus facilitating further spread at live poultry markets and by migratory birds.
The epidemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza caused by H5N1, which began in mid-December 2003 in the Republic of Korea and is now being seen in other Asian countries, is therefore of particular public health concern. H5N1 variants demonstrated a capacity to directly infect humans in 1997, and have done so again in Viet Nam in January 2004. The spread of infection in birds increases the opportunities for direct infection of humans. If more humans become infected over time, the likelihood also increases that humans, if concurrently infected with human and avian influenza strains, could serve as the ?mixing vessel? for the emergence of a novel subtype with sufficient human genes to be easily transmitted from person to person. Such an event would mark the start of an influenza pandemic.
Influenza pandemics: can they be averted? (1)
Based on historical patterns, influenza pandemics can be expected to occur, on average, three to four times each century when new virus subtypes emerge and are readily transmitted from person to person. However, the occurrence of influenza pandemics is unpredictable. In the 20th century, the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, which caused an estimated 40 to 50 million deaths worldwide, was followed by pandemics in 1957-1958 and 1968-1969.
Experts agree that another influenza pandemic is inevitable and possibly imminent.
Most influenza experts also agree that the prompt culling of Hong Kong's entire poultry population in 1997 probably averted a pandemic.
Several measures can help minimize the global public health risks that could arise from large outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza in birds. An immediate priority is to halt further spread of epidemics in poultry populations. This strategy works to reduce opportunities for human exposure to the virus. Vaccination of persons at high risk of exposure to infected poultry, using existing vaccines effective against currently circulating human influenza strains, can reduce the likelihood of co-infection of humans with avian and influenza strains, and thus reduce the risk that genes will be exchanged. Workers involved in the culling of poultry flocks must be protected, by proper clothing and equipment, against infection. These workers should also receive antiviral drugs as a prophylactic measure.
When cases of avian influenza in humans occur, information on the extent of influenza infection in animals as well as humans and on circulating influenza viruses is urgently needed to aid the assessment of risks to public health and to guide the best protective measures. Thorough investigation of each case is also essential. While WHO and the members of its global influenza network, together with other international agencies, can assist with many of these activities, the successful containment of public health risks also depends on the epidemiological and laboratory capacity of affected countries and the adequacy of surveillance systems already in place.
While all these activities can reduce the likelihood that a pandemic strain will emerge, the question of whether another influenza pandemic can be averted cannot be answered with certainty.
Clinical course and treatment of human cases of H5N1 avian influenza
Published information about the clinical course of human infection with H5N1 avian influenza is limited to studies of cases in the 1997 Hong Kong outbreak. In that outbreak, patients developed symptoms of fever, sore throat, cough and, in several of the fatal cases, severe respiratory distress secondary to viral pneumonia. Previously healthy adults and children, and some with chronic medical conditions, were affected.
Tests for diagnosing all influenza strains of animals and humans are rapid and reliable. Many laboratories in the WHO global influenza network have the necessary high-security facilities and reagents for performing these tests as well as considerable experience. Rapid bedside tests for the diagnosis of human influenza are also available, but do not have the precision of the more extensive laboratory testing that is currently needed to fully understand the most recent cases and determine whether human infection is spreading, either directly from birds or from person to person.
Antiviral drugs, some of which can be used for both treatment and prevention, are clinically effective against influenza A virus strains in otherwise healthy adults and children, but have some limitations. Some of these drugs are also expensive and supplies are limited.
Experience in the production of influenza vaccines is also considerable, particularly as vaccine composition changes each year to match changes in circulating virus due to antigenic drift. However, at least four months would be needed to produce a new vaccine, in significant quantities, capable of conferring protection against a new virus subtype.