Robert Webster, an influenza expert, says health authorities worldwide need to remain watchful for possible influenza outbreaks, despite swine flu being much less deadly than people had originally feared. Webster, chairman of the virology and molecular biology department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, USA, says that bird flu remains a possible threat and could be the cause of the next global outbreak.

Last month, WHO (World Health Organization) declared the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic over, after 18,600 reported deaths worldwide – WHO warnings and recommendations had led many to believe we were in for an epidemic which would cost millions of lives. Some prestigious medical journals, as well as leading experts expressed concern that billions of dollars of public money was wasted, with not much achieved except for the pharmaceutical industry’s profits. At an influenza conference in Hong Kong (Options for the Control of Influenza VII) a WHO official defended the accusations against it.

According to Robert Webster:

We may think we can relax and influenza is no longer a problem. I want to assure you that that is not the case.

There is a possibility, Webster said, that the next outbreak could emerge from birds (water fowl), which would then be transmitted to pigs, and from pigs to humans. H5N1, a type of flu virus, did just that, and has killed 300 people worldwide so far.

Although bird flu deaths have been dropping over the last few years, they have started to rise in Egypt, Webster added.

H5N1 kills 61% of humans who become infected. Fortunately, human-to-human transmission is not currently possible.

However, Webster warned:

But don’t trust it because it could acquire that capacity. So we must stay vigilant.

According to Egypt’s Ministry of Health, a new human case of A(H5N1) avian influenza has been reported and confirmed. A 33-year-old female from Qaluibia governorate developed symptoms on August 17th, was hospitalized 7 days later, where she received oseltamivir treatment – she died on 26th August.

Preliminary investigations indicate the deceased patient was exposed to sick and dead poultry.

The Egyptian Central Public Health Laboratories, a National Influenza Center of the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network (GISN), confirmed the woman had A(H5N1) avian influenza infection.

112 laboratory confirmed cases of Avian influenza A(H5N1) infection have been reported in Egypt; 36 of them died.

Bird flu, or avian influenza, is a disease cause by viruses. It is a contagious disease which infects only birds, and sometimes pigs. The avian influenza viruses attack specific species – they have, on occasions jumped the species barrier and infected people. However, this is quite rare.

As far as farmed birds are concerned (poultry), there are two main types of avian influenza – one is fairly mild while the other is deadly (for birds).

  • MILD

    Low pathogenic forms of bird flu may cause a bird to have more ruffled feathers and lay fewer eggs. This form is often undetected among farmed poultry (in many cases the bird is infected, then gets better and nobody noticed).


    The highly pathogenic form of bird flu is much more dangerous. It has a mortality rate of virtually 100% and spreads very rapidly among flocks of birds. A bird infected with the more virulent type of bird flu (the highly pathogenic form) experiences deterioration of many internal organs.

The most dangerous strain of the bird flu virus is called H5N1.

Sources: WHO (World Health Organization), Options for the Control of Influenza VII.

Written by Christian Nordqvist