Anthrax, schmanthrax.
February 20, 2003 1:05 PM   Subscribe

The bird flu is back. Despite denials by the Hong Kong government, the World Health Organization announced yesterday that two people were killed by the same virulent species-jumpingstrain of influenza that caused the 1997 panic. It's certainly less gruesome than the ebola outbreak going on in Congo right now, but, unlike ebola, the flu is highly contagious. [more inside]
posted by ptermit (14 comments total)
What's particularly disturbing about the bird flu is that it's classified as H5N1 -- these are the types of the two key proteins on the virus' coat, hemaglutinin and neuroaminidase. Almost all flus nowadays are H3N2, IIRC, with an occasional H1N1... this is a different type, and thus might cause a worldwide pandemic because the population doesn't have any resistance. No reason to panic, but something to keep an eye on.
posted by ptermit at 1:10 PM on February 20, 2003

isn't ebola's problem that it's way TOO contagious? The tendency is to kill everyone in a small area, but it spreads and kills so fast that it doesn't make it to the next village.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:28 PM on February 20, 2003

Ebola's very virulent, but not very contagious. It's a fragile virus that's spread mostly by reused syringes and/or getting a liberal dousing by infected bodily fluids. It's not easily aerosolized, if I recall correctly -- and The Hot Zone tells of a case where a filivirus *did* spread via aerosols, but luckily, it only infected monkeys.
posted by ptermit at 1:37 PM on February 20, 2003

Influenza is spread by migratory waterfowl. Should we start killing ducks, geese and swans too? Although waterfowl have been cleared of passing the flu in the epidemic that killed millions right after World War I.
posted by stevefromsparks at 1:39 PM on February 20, 2003

From what I understand, Ridge is currently drafting the "War on Waterfowl" memo as we speak.
posted by Wulfgar! at 2:20 PM on February 20, 2003

It is also a concern because avian flu might kill the chicken eggs that are used to generate the vaccine.

On a personal note, I knew an old fellow who had lived through the spanish flu, and who fought through a memory block to recall that of the 200 or so people in his sphere of ordinary activity, over two dozen had died of it.
It was such a traumatic event that the dead became non-persons and the subject was taboo for discussion. No one would mention it because they knew that everyone had suffered.

Also very odd in that young men, from age 18-30 seemed to have suffered disproportionately from the disease.
posted by kablam at 5:46 PM on February 20, 2003

Will a flu shot help with this?
posted by blue_beetle at 6:22 PM on February 20, 2003

Holy shit. Avian influenza could wipe out everybody-ish.

Last year, I read Gini Kolata's Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. It has a section devoted to the topic of avian influenza, and it left me quite concerned. The story of the 1918-1919 pandemic is fascinating. As kablam points out, it was taboo to discuss, and so most people have no idea of how many millions and millions died in those two years.

For the truly curious, I recommend a read of WHO's "Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan: The Role of WHO and Guidelines for National and Regional Planning". It's comforting to know that so much planning has gone into this.
posted by waldo at 7:35 PM on February 20, 2003

It's misleading to declare that Hong Kong's government is denying the threat. Local news has it that they are very concerned and are indeed doing something about the situation.

Initial gene sequencing on the new strain of H5N1 shows it contains no human influenza genes, which means that it cannot be easily passed from person to person. This is being confirmed two World Health Organisation labs at this time.

Of course officials are concerned about the potential for mutation into a true pathogen, but for now they are doing everything they can control this strain of the virus.

In the past whenever H5N1 has been detected in Hong Kong, the government has gone into overdrive to ensure the disease would not spread. Specifically this involved mass slaughter and incineration of poultry birds; and disinfection and cleaning of farms, transport vehicles and wet markets. Furthermore, there are regular inspections of live poultry to watch for any threat of further spread of the disease.

The new strain of H5N1 that killed two Hong Kong citizens is believed to have been acquired directly from chickens in Fujian in mainland China. There is no evidence to support a local connection at this time.

As long as the virus retains only avian influenza genes, then the only way to acquire the flu is from direct contact with the birds. And though this new strain has proven deadly, it still falls short of what is required for a pandemic such as the Spanish Flu of 1918.

In other words, there's no need to panic.
posted by bwg at 7:37 PM on February 20, 2003

Actually the Ebola strain discussed in "The Hot Zone" was Ebola Reston (because it happened in Reston Virginia) was not only spread in the air but was catchable by humans, it was just not deadly to humans. This is the only known Ebola strain that is not deadly to humans. We should probably count ourselves amazingly lucky that the only known airborne strain was not deadly to humans.

All other strains can only be spread via bodily fluids and is fatal in like 90% of the cases.

"The Hot Zone" was a great read but deviated from accuracy many times. If you are interested in emerging viruses I would highly recommend Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC It is a vivid book and I found it unique because it shows you the very human side of the issue. It also talked about enough details to give you a good basis for further learning.
posted by GreenDragon at 9:35 PM on February 20, 2003

I agree that there's no reason to panic. i have to admit, though, that i'm skipping the chicken section (yes, completely irrationally) in parknshop nowadays.

From friday's South China Morning Post...
In Hong Kong, flu epidemic response plans were discussed at inter-departmental meetings at Prince of Wales and Queen Mary hospitals. Fresh stocks of the anti-flu drug Tamiflu were also being distributed to hospitals.

Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong said it was likely that the boy was infected in Fujian, adding that Hong Kong had an effective surveillance system to detect H5N1 at all levels.
posted by i blame your mother at 4:57 AM on February 21, 2003

bwg: Thanks for the correction... I'd change the post to remove the part about the HK government if I could.

greendragon: Thanks for the pointer... I read the Hot Zone and found it a good narrative but lacking scientifically, and then I tried to read Laurie Garrett's (she of the Davos thread) The Coming Plague but got bored with it. Maybe I'll try Level 4.
posted by ptermit at 6:07 AM on February 21, 2003

ptermit: don't sweat it.

The government here, despite their many shortcomings, actually are doing a great job trying to stay on top of the particular problem, given that it could easily get out of hand.

The scary thing is, eventually mother nature will defeat our best efforts at preventing the kind of mutation that would make this virus a global killer.

But I'm not going to spend my days worrying about it.
posted by bwg at 7:09 AM on February 22, 2003

Oh, one last detail that is a little scary (if anyone picks up on this thread this late in the game).
It used to be that the flu consistently traveled around the planet from east to west, always moving west from wherever it originated. This meant that the western coast of the US seemed to always get hit last, and the CDC in Atlanta had some time to try and produce and distribute vaccine.
However, our friends the cruise ships are now cutting down the lead time by both taking new and more potent strains of flu up to Alaska; where it is almost ideally incubated during the long winter in closed quarters; and then the ships bring these new strains south, right down the west coast and into the US.
This gives the CDC almost no time to mitigate the disease before it becomes widespread in the US.
posted by kablam at 6:48 PM on February 22, 2003

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