Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Is avian influenza being over hyped?

According to a south Otago mayor Malcom Macpherson, bird flu is being over hyped and we really should be spending our money on other things.

"There's no evidence anywhere in the world that I've seen yet that this thing has transferred person to person," says MacPherson.

"It's really difficult to catch it from a bird, you've got to be in Turkey or China or somewhere like that and bite the head off the chicken frankly to catch this," he says.

Now while Malcom MacPherson makes a valid point- as at the moment it's quite hard to get bird flu because it is in a geographical region that's pretty far away from us- the problem with this sort of logic is it is being far too complacent. Bird flu has been mutating and in fact the recent turkey strains of H5N1 are in fact showing variation from those detected from China and Vietnam for instance. A virus that will be capable of transmission from human to human will emerge from a small number of (most likely) sub-clinical cases in people that nobody even realises were infected originally. Alternatively, the virus could pick up the ability to transfer from another host that can take both human and bird flu viruses such as pigs.

Just because the virus hasn't successfully mutated as of today, doesn't mean that it is incapable of doing so in the future. While many may regard the current 'flu frenzy' to be over hyping something that will turn into nothing, much like the previous epidemic from SARS, it's a very different situation with this virus. Influenza has in the past caused devastating outbreaks such as in 1918 and several times again, such as in 1957 and 1968. While I would normally pass off a lot of the current concern about H5N1 as the media just hyping something up for the 'story of the moment' affair, this particular virus has a bad history. That combined with influenzas capabilities to rapidly evolve under pressure make bird flu a serious concern however far away it currently is.