Is Bird Flu A Real Threat? How To Tell Fact From Fiction About This And Other Emerging Disease Threats
So is the threat real? "Whether the bird flu virus will spread to North America is unpredictable at this time," says Corrie Brown, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists (ACVP) and a University of Georgia professor of veterinary medicine. "Although the likelihood of this mutation is unlikely, history cautions us to the possibility. The longer the bird flu virus is in circulation, the greater the risk for a pandemic."
For years, veterinary pathologists have been on the front lines, preventing these diseases from spreading from animals to humans, and creating vaccines for those that make that critical leap that turns an emerging threat into a real one.
Early detection and rapid response are the solutions for controlling emerging infectious diseases on a global scale and minimizing the risk of a full-blown human pandemic - a global epidemic affecting a large proportion of the world's population.
When to pay attention to an emerging disease
An "emerging disease" can be either a previously unknown disease agent or a known disease now appearing in a new species or geographic area. When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was first discovered in China in 2002 and linked to the handling and slaughter of wildlife for human consumption, vet pathologists diagnosed the pathogen and helped curtail its global spread.
Vet pathologists were also the first to diagnose West Nile Virus (WNV), one of several viruses that may be transmitted to people and animals via insect bites. Today they play critical roles on research teams working to alleviate AIDS, SARS, cancer, chronic wasting disease, monkeypox and bioterrorism.
Three-fourths of all emerging human diseases worldwide over the past two decades have originated in animals. Vet pathologists are trained to know what to look for, so they're our front line of defense in the early detection of emerging diseases.
Most emerging diseases are infectious with zoonotic (animal-to-human) potential, occurring at the interface between wildlife, domestic species, and humans. Why are zoonotic diseases more prevalent today? The main reasons are:
(1) Increasing numbers of humans
(2) Expanding globalization of trade
The tripling of international commerce over the past 20 years, combined with runaway population growth, has created a synergy for microorganisms to move freely and quickly from their commonly inhabited domains into unexpected niches, often with lethal results.
Bird flu, or avian influenza, is one example of a recent such threat to human health. Others include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or "mad cow" disease, and the Ebola virus. Although the risk of animal-to-human transmission is small, given the right set of circumstances, all have the potential to become epidemic - or pandemic.
"The world is only just beginning to become prepared for a human influenza pandemic," says Dr. Brown. "Unfortunately, we are poorly prepared for other emerging infectious diseases, and it's difficult to predict where the next pathogen will come from, or when."
"Our challenge: 'expect the unexpected,' adds Brown, "and always keep things in proper perspective." To learn more, visit http://www.acvp.org.
"There's critical need for a public health surveillance system that's thoroughly integrated with surveillance of wild and domestic animals. Without it, an outbreak of a new infectious disease with high transmissibility and mortality could virtually devastate the human population before sufficient resources could be rallied."
Bird flu facts:
-- The biggest threat is to the poultry industry.
-- Reduced production would impact everyone's pocketbook.
-- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has stringent control measures in place at the borders and is working closely with the poultry industry to boost biosecurity.
-- We still need to be concerned about it infecting wild birds.
-- Mortality of mute swans, ducks, geese, raptors and other wild species associated with the bird flu virus infection in Europe has led to a number of deaths among meat-eating species, including tigers, leopards, domestic cats and humans, who most likely contracted the virus by feeding on carcasses of infected domestic or wild birds.
-- Risk of human infection with the virus in its current form appears to be quite low, as is human-to-human transmission.
-- The virus could become easily transmissible among humans through mutation or reassortment with a human influenza virus.
The American College of Veterinary Pathologists
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