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Bird flu's here as crisis committee meets
[April 06, 2006]

Bird flu's here as crisis committee meets

(The Portsmouth Evening News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)HEALTH chiefs and emergency planning bosses have insisted there was no need to panic as bird flu hit the UK.

Veterinary experts are currently testing a dead swan found in Fife, Scotland, to see whether it has the most dangerous H5N1 strain of the virus.

And the top-level government Cobra committee was meeting this morning to work out what action needs to be taken.

However Hampshire bosses said nothing has changed locally. Until the virus changes so it can pass between humans, they say, there is almost no risk to the general population.

John Henly, the emergency planning boss for Hampshire's Strategic Health Authority, said: 'There is absolutely no reason for the public to be any more concerned about the risks today than yesterday. There is still no human-to-human transmission,' he said.

Portsmouth's senior health protection nurse Sue Hill added: 'As far as we are concerned nothing has changed - it is a single bird, in Scotland, and we think it is an isolated case.' BIRD FLU QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS Why the panic about bird flu today? Because a swan in Fife, Scotland, has died from it What is being done to stop the disease spreading across the UK? Government officials have imposed a three-mile zone around the spot the swan was found, stopping movement of birds and eggs, telling bird keepers to get birds indoors, and checking vehicles Will that be enough to contain it? Not necessarily - wild birds such as ducks and swans carry the disease and cannot easily be contained. The swan was also dead for some time before it was discovered and it is possible other birds which were pecking at it could have picked up the bug.

So is this it - has the bird flu crisis arrived? No. The disease is still essentially only passed from bird to bird. There is still no evidence of human-to-human spread.

I hear there are different strains so how do I know if this is the killer one? There are 15 types of bird, or avian, flu. The most contagious strains are H5 and H7. So far, all that is known about the dead swan in Fife is that it had H5.

There are nine different types of H5. The nine all take different forms - some are highly dangerous, while some are pretty harmless. The type currently causing concern is the deadly strain H5N1, which can prove fatal to humans.

If birds in the UK have the disease, can I catch it from them? It is possible - but only just. So far all the cases of people catching bird flu have been where there is very close, prolonged contact between the person and infected birds. In the UK almost nobody except poultry workers is likely to be at risk.

Can I continue to eat chicken? Yes. Experts say avian flu is not a food-borne virus, so eating chicken is safe. The only people thought to be at risk are those involved in the slaughter and preparation of meat that may be infected.

However, the World Health Organisation recommends that to be absolutely safe all meat should be cooked to a temperature of at least 70C. Eggs should also be thoroughly cooked.

Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen University underlined the negligible risk to consumers: 'The virus is carried in the chicken's gut. A person would have to dry out the chicken meat and would have to sniff the carcass to be at any risk. But even then, it would be very hard to become infected.' What about letting children near birds? There is currently no warning about going to places with wild birds.

Can I still go and feed ducks at the pond? Yes, but direct contact with wild birds is not advisable.

So how could I catch it? The bug can be passed through the air, or through bird droppings. To be safe, do not handle dead birds, but otherwise the risk is very, very small.

If it is hard to catch, why should I worry? Virus constantly change, or 'mutate', stopping people and animals from building up immunity to them. If bird flu changes into a bug that is easily passed between humans people will have few defences against it Will that definitely happen? Experts are still not totally certain but most think it is a matter of when, not if, a new flu strain emerges When might it happen? Nobody knows. The emergence of a new strain of flu is thought to be inevitable because throughout history they appear regularly, but it is impossible to predict when.

Will the new bug definitely come from bird flu? Not necessarily but it seem the most likely candidate. The new 'H5N1' strain of bird flu is widespread throughout the world, and has proved it can occasionally be passed to people Is that likely? Many experts believe it is inevitable but nobody knows how deadly the new strain would be.

Why is bird flu considered such a risk? It is already widespread throughout the world's birds, and the new strain H5N1 has shown it can occasionally be picked up by humans. Also, if it changes so humans can pass it to each other it would be a totally new virus which humans have no immunity to.

How many people have been affected? As of 13 February 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) had confirmed 169 cases of H5N1 in humans in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Turkey and Iraq, leading to 91 deaths.

What has happened to the people who have caught the H5N1 virus from birds? About half of the 170 people have died.

Who is most at risk? Is it just the old? No. Outbreaks of new strains of flu have sometimes hit the young harder than the old.

How many people could die if the virus mutates? The government estimates there could be at least 50,000 UK deaths within three months but it all depends on the exact flu strain which emerges.

So what is the government doing? A total of 14 million doses of 'anti-viral' drugs - which help ease the symptoms - have been ordered and each region must prepare emergency plans for a pandemic.

Is there a vaccine? There is not yet a definitive vaccine, but prototypes which offer protection against the H5N1 strain are being produced.

But antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu which are already available and being stockpiled by countries such as the UK, may help limit symptoms and reduce the chances the disease will spread.

Concerns have been prompted by news that patients in Vietnam have become partially resistant to Tamiflu, the drug that doctors plan to use to tackle a human bird flu outbreak.

Scientists say it may be helpful to have stocks of other drugs from the same family such as Relenza (zanamivir).

Who gets the drugs? They only help people who already have the disease - they cannot be taken as a precaution. If stocks have been built up they would be given out to the infected, if not they would initially be given out to key people such as doctors.

Where will the drugs be sent? They will probably be sent out to GPs and given to the sick through pharmacies.

Are there plans in place in case the virus starts passing between people? Masks are already being ordered by local authorities and the NHS, and regular meetings already take place to discuss what to do. Routine hospital operations would be cancelled, big public events like football matches may be postponed, schools could be closed and travel to high-risk areas could be restricted.

What are the symptoms? Symptoms are similar to other types of flu - fever, malaise, sore throats and coughs. People can also develop conjunctivitis.

Researchers are now concerned because scientists studying a case in Vietnam found the virus can affect all parts of the body, not just the lungs.

This could mean that many illnesses, and even deaths, thought to have been caused by something else, may have been due to the bird flu virus.

Would many people catch it but survive? That is the most likely outcome. Most people are not even expected to need hospital treatment but in a full-scale outbreak about one person in four would be off work sick at any one time.

Would schools close if a full-scale outbreak strikes? There has been no final decision but it is likely. Children are infectious for longer than adults and if they are crammed into classrooms the disease could spread quickly.

Why is there even the possibility of keeping schools open? Because if schools close it would increase the disruption - as well as one in four people off work, even more people would stay at home to look after their kids which risks the economy grinding to a halt.

What about international travel and shipping? Portsmouth's port would stay open initially but decisions over stopping international movement would be up to world governments.

Would top sports events and public gatherings still take place? Probably, but not definitely, depending on the severity of the outbreak.

How will it end? Once the strain is known, vaccines can be developed as well as more people becoming exposed to it and developing their own natural immunity.

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