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Health officials have issued warnings for months about the danger the avian flu could pose to humans, but an expert from Purdue University says that while the threat is real, there is a great deal that can be done to stop a worst-case scenario.
"Prevention is the key to avoiding a massive public-health crisis," says James D. McGlothlin, an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences. "Being alert to the danger of this virus, as well as practicing common-sense measures, can go a long way toward saving lives."
So far, the World Health Organization has confirmed at least 60 deaths due to bird flu. If the virus is transmitted human to human, it has been estimated that the virus could kill millions of Americans, although no cases among fowl or humans have been reported yet in the United States.
McGlothlin says basic hygiene practices, such as frequent hand washing covering the mouth when coughing, while obvious, can help prevent the spread of all viruses, including colds, the traditional flu or the more deadly avian flu.
"Those measures are especially important because, while a vaccine has been developed, there is not nearly enough to go around and won't be at least for another year. And due to this virus' ability to mutate, we're not even sure how effective it will be."
McGlothlin, who conducts research in exposure assessment, industrial hygiene and ergonomics and worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for 22 years, says avian flu is a major threat because the mortality rate is much higher than the traditional flu. Also, avian flu could mutate and create a new, deadlier strain of the virus for which humans have no natural immunity.
McGlothlin says the avian flu bears a striking resemblance to the 1918 flu that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. But the difference today is that we know the virus could be coming so we can take steps to prevent a pandemic, he says.
"Right now, the virus is concentrated mainly in Asia, where there have been human deaths caused by contact with sick birds, and recent outbreaks in Turkey and Romania suggest migratory birds are spreading the avian virus. While there are suspected cases of human-to-human transmission, there are no confirmed cases. It would be a big deal when avian flu jumps from bird-to-human transmission to human-to-human transmission, and from what the Centers for Disease Control are telling us, that's a matter of when, not if."
McGlothlin says it's important to remember that while no cases of bird flu have been reported yet in this country, paying attention to flu-like symptoms is wise. Any flu that fails to improve within a week should be brought to the attention of a physician. The doctor can then evaluate the illness and have the patient tested for the H5N1 virus and take the necessary steps, such as isolating the person to prevent the virus' spread to a larger population.
"The general public shouldn't be panicked, but people should be aware," he says.
He also offers advice to anyone traveling to one of the countries where bird flu has already taken root. As much as possible, he says, visitors should stay away from chicken farms and wet markets (where domestic and wild animals are kept and sold as food), since the virus so far has been spread from bird feces, saliva and nasal secretions.
"It would have to be the right combination of events to create a pandemic, the simplest being that one person who has the human flu virus is exposed to one with the avian flu and the two viruses mixed then mutated to form a new virus to spread from human to human and to which humans do not have immunity," McGlothlin says. "At that point, it would be much harder to stop its spread. Quarantines to be managed by the military, which have been suggested by President Bush, would be our last option."
However, McGlothlin acknowledges quarantine is not a good option. What is better, he says, is for public health officials at all levels - from local to worldwide- to stay on top of tracking the illness.
"We need to be able to respond immediately with the right people, at the right time, with the right plan," he said. "If we are able to do this, we can beat this thing. Then the CDC could say this is the pandemic that never happened."
Source: Purdue University