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Q&A / Bird Flu: Hybrid Strain Could Be Deadly

Posted - Jan. 27, 2004 at 7:20 a.m.



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Q: Why are scientists concerned about bird flu? A: The bird flu virus could evolve into a form that is easily spread among people. Q: How could this happen? A: Someone already infected with the human flu virus might catch the bird flu. The two viruses could recombine inside the victim's body. Human influenza is very contagious; bird flu causes serious disease. The combination could produce a hybrid with both characteristics: a lethal strain that would spread easily from person to person. Q: Why would that be so bad? A: The resulting virus would likely be something humans have never been exposed to before. With no immune defenses, the infection could cause devastating illness, such as occurred in the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 40 million to 50 million worldwide. Q: How do people catch bird flu? A: So far in this outbreak, human cases have been blamed on direct contact with infected chickens and their droppings. Q: How is this outbreak of bird flu different from earlier ones? A: This outbreak has spread more rapidly into more countries, increasing its exposure to more people in many locations. An outbreak in 1997 in Hong Kong was the first time that bird flu had spread to people, but it was much more quickly contained. Also, this outbreak has now killed seven people; six died in the Hong Kong episode. Q: How can bird flu be stopped? A: The chief strategy is to kill infected poultry. Q: Is there a vaccine? A: No. One is being developed, but it will probably take months and may not be ready in time to stop a widespread human outbreak, if one occurs. Q: Is there more than one kind of bird flu? A: Yes. Bird flu is a type of influenza A, which is the most common type of flu. There are 15 subtypes of influenza A, and at least three --- H5, H7 and H9 --- cause disease in birds. The current one is called H5N1. Q: How common is bird flu? A: The disease occurs worldwide, but the H5N1 strain and one other have caused cases of illness resulting in death in people. Wild waterfowl such as ducks carry avian influenza but are not made ill by it. Chickens and other domestic poultry are especially vulnerable to the disease. Q: Is bird flu the same as severe acute respiratory syndrome? A: No. They are caused by completely different viruses, although both viruses cause similar respiratory symptoms.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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