A news report about the suicides of several Indian chicken farmers reminded me of an email which one of my old friends sent me a little over a week ago. Said friend was in audience as a bird ecologist from the US Geological Survey expounded on the etiology of the avian flu. The following is a slightly edited version of the email which contains some of the presentation’s key items. Be advised: the words below are that of my friend, rather than that of the bird ecologist, and the facts are recited from his memory. However, the facts are easily checked and links are provided, when found and/or available.
• H5N1 [avian influenza or 'bird flu'] is a poultry disease. It’s very deadly to chickens. Most that catch it die, within 48 hours. Wild birds carry it around and are more resistant.The great thing about being a woman with men friends who respect you is that they treat you like a delicate flower even when they know that you’re not. :-)
• H5N1 is unusual because it started with domestic birds and spread laterally to wild birds and to humans. The normal progression for a bird virus is:
wild birds --> domestic birds --> domestic mammals --> people --> more people
• H5N1 went like this:
wild birds <=== domestic birds --> some people
• H5N1 first appeared in 1997 [in humans], in China. It percolated over there in Asia for many years, moving to Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, etc.
• Chinese officials responded to the disease by taking farmers’ chickens away from them (thereby destroying the farmers...they don’t have farm subsidy and insurance over there). Farmers responded by hiding their chickens, sending them to relatives, or not reporting the disease, so it spread even more.
• There is now a Vietnamese clade and a Chinese clade. Most of the vaccines being produced against it are only good against the Vietnamese clade. But the Chinese clade is the one that's spreading everywhere.
• In early 2005, H5N1 killed a ton of wild birds at a lake in China. Experts from all over the world went to study it identified the disease.
• The current mass spread began in May 2005. It moved from China across Asia to Turkey and Eastern Europe, east to west.
• The cause of the sudden breakout is a mystery. The move from east to west does not correspond to wild bird migration, which runs north to south. There’s been some spread north to south (it’s in Africa now too), but the biggest rush was east to west.
• The cause probably had to do with trade and shipping of chickens and other poultry. Also with smuggling of exotic birds. And migration too; [likely] a combination of all these things.
• Poultry imports and smuggling will probably bring H5N1 to North America [much more quickly] than wild bird migration.
• H5N1 will probably appear in North America eventually, but it is NOT certain it will appear this year.
• There is an Asian strain and a North American strain. North American H5N1 was already here. So when the newsmongers said “They’ve found H5N1 in Canada!” it means nothing. That strain was already here. It’s always been here [can’t find links to confirm the 'always' part –ed.], it’s not the same disease.
• Not a single human being has caught H5N1 from a wild bird; only from chickens.
• People catch H5N1 by direct physical contact through unsanitary practices (which I won’t describe, unless you ask me to).
• Heat kills it. You can’t get it from a cooked bird.As indicated.
• H5N1 thrives in cool, moist places. It can survive in deep cold. There are geese that migrate from China OVER the Himalayas that can carry it into India. India is upset.
• Dogs and cats have caught it, from eating dead (i.e. uncooked) infected birds. There is currently no data on mortality rates among dogs and cats.I doubt that access to pertinent information on the bird flu would have prevented those Indian farmers from taking their lives, since, as this article indicates, the Indian government has been trying to tell its constituents that it okay to consume cooked chickens, but, overall, Indians aren’t buying it. However, in societies which are more likely to believe information from acknowledged experts--along with individually-researched information--a little push in the right direction can help prevent panic from spreading.
• Since 1997 to date, 191 people have caught H5N1. Of these, over 100 have died of it. So far it’s been a 57% mortality rate (that's fifty-seven).
• The mortality rate of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed millions, was only 2% (that's two).
• Nobody knew what a virus was in 1918.
No one has caught H5N1 from another human. It's still just a chicken disease. Some day it might be human to human, or it may not ever be. But a 57% mortality rate is nothing to sniff at.
If you find a dead bird, remember that birds die all the time, from many, many different diseases. If you must dispose of it, wash well with hot water If you must eat it, cook it. If you must handle it, try to, you know.... restrain yourself. And wash.
H5N1 is a respectable disease. Chicken farmers should be concerned. The rest of us can ease up, but be respectful.
So keep chowing down on that *well-cooked* drumstick. For now.
WORST CASE SCENARIO: Reports says that President Bush is likely to approve a national response plan which has been prepared in case of mutation of the virus (90 million infected, 2 million dead as target figures).
(Thanks to D.)