Avian Influenza

All influenza pandemics of the 20th century have spread around the world within one year of being detected. In 1918, the “Spanish Flu” pandemic caused the highest number of known influenza deaths, topping 500,000 in the US and over fifty million deaths worldwide. This particular virus was reintroduced back into the human population in the 1970s and still circulates today. Other influenza pandemics include the “Asian Flu,” which caused 70,000 deaths in the US in the late ’50s. Also, there was the “Hong Kong Flu” at the end of the ’60s, which caused over 34,000 deaths in the US and still circulates today as well. There is concern that a new virus, the “Avian Flu,” could become as dangerous or even more dangerous than these previous pandemics. The “Avian Flu,” also known as the H5N1 virus or “Bird Flu,” has caused an outbreak among birds in Southeast Asia in the latter part of 2003. This fatal virus occurs naturally among birds and is extremely contagious to them as well. Over 100 million birds have been affected with the virus in Asia and almost all have either died or have been destroyed to control the spread of the virus. Though infection and spread of the virus from person-to-person is extremely rare, cases have been reported in Asia where people have died from the Flu because of the lack of immune protection our bodies provide to the virus. The main concern with this virus is its recent ability to spread with migrating birds. Cases have now been reported in Russia and Eastern Europe in countries that are unprepared for a pandemic. Not only has this virus destroyed poultry business in certain areas, but it also has the ability to change and evolve rapidly. A spokesman for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has stated that they have never seen a disease spread out as far and as quickly as this virus has. H5N1 is resistant to commonly used antiviral medications, amantadine and rimantadine, and there is no current vaccine, but development for one has been underway. Even though the risk of an outbreak in the US is relatively low, health departments all over the country have been preparing for a possible pandemic. The Fletcher Allen Health Care has been working with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the Vermont Department of Health in making their people aware of the situation. The CDC has implemented such policies as helping state laboratories detect the virus, as well as holding or taking part in local areas to boost their capacities of tracking the H5N1 virus. The CDC also works with the World Health Organization (WHO) in training locals of high-risk countries in dealing with the virus. The CDC has issued warnings to those traveling to high-risk countries to avoid contact with poultry and contaminated areas, as well. The H5N1 virus is highly unpredictable. Currently risk in the US is low, but the rapid spreading around Europe has allowed the CDC and the WHO to prepare themselves as well as informing local departments, such as the Vermont Department of Health and the Fletcher Allen Health Care System, of the dangers and plans to deal with this erratic virus.