Bird flu could be the greatest threat to modern civilization and the world is poorly prepared for a bird flu pandemic. The rapid spread of the bird flu virus raises the question: what can we do to protect ourselves if a bird flu pandemic strikes?
A potential bird flu pandemic can't be taken lightly.
By taking samples from lungs of exhumed victims researchers at the USA Centers For Disease Control confirmed the 1918 Spanish flu was also a bird flu. Alarming news because the Spanish flu pandemic was a global catastrophe infecting approximately one quarter of the United States and one fifth of the world.
From 20 million to 50 million people died from this 1918 Spanish "bird" flu and most of the victims were aged from 20 to 40 years . This pattern is unusual because influenza normally kills the sick, elderly and young children.
At the height of the Spanish bird flu funerals were limited to 15 minutes, there was a chronic shortage of coffins and gravediggers and stores were forbidden to hold sales.
It seems that a mutated bird flu like the 1918 Spanish "bird flu" is particularly dangerous because human populations haven't had the chance to develop a resistance to a virus that is normally limited to birds.
Worse still, effects of a bird flu outbreak are not just limited to disease and death. The outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong demonstrated in stark terms that commerce can be shut down in an area suffering cases of a deadly infectious disease.
If a wide scale bird flu pandemic were to break out in the western world we could see cities gripped with fear as Hong Kong was for that short period with SARS in 2003. Empty shops, empty streets and commerce grinding to a halt.
Dr Michael Osterholm, epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota called a potential bird flu pandemic "The single greatest risk to our world today."
David Nabaro from UN health predicted from 5 to 150 million people could die worldwide if the bird flu virus mutates to a human to human virus.
Britain's chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson said it wasn't a question of IF a virus pandemic like the bird flu would hit human populations but WHEN.
Sir Liam also pointed out a vaccine for a human to human bird flu virus can't be produced until the virus mutates and a bird flu vaccine may not be effective even after one can be produced.
The Asian flu pandemic of 1957 demonstrated how difficult it is to vaccinate against a rapidly mutating widespread influenza virus. Despite prior warning and despite a vaccine being developed quite rapidly the 1957 Asian flu spread to the United States where it killed 70,000 people.
Health authorities have difficulty producing and administering vaccines quickly enough to fight a virus. Also the rapidly mutating nature of influenza viruses means many vaccines provide very limited protection.
Anti-viral drugs are a more recent development in the fight against respiratory viruses like the bird flu and governments in the western world have begun stockpiling the anti-viral drug tamiflu as part of a bird flu protection plan. But in a bird flu pandemic tamiflu may not be as effective as authorities would hope.
In an unsettling development for health authorities tamilflu resistant strains of the bird flu are appearing. Recently a vietnamese girl was diagnosed with a tamiflu resistant strain of bird flu and in China the bird flu strain H5N1 is showing around 70% resistance to adamatane drugs like tamiflu.
Other anti-viral drugs like Relenza may be more effective if a bird flu pandemic strikes but until the bird flu mutates to a human to human virus we can't be certain which drug – if any - will provide a pharmaceutical first line of bird flu defense.
On the lighter side of bird flu prevention sales of sauerkraut in 54 Twin Cities stores in the USA spiked 840% after an inconclusive and tiny study by Korean researchers found the bacteria in fermented greens might speed the recovery of chickens infected with the bird flu.
People more interested in a little more serious bird flu protection than fermented cabbage might heed the one consistent recommendation from health authorities across the world to reduce your chance of catching the bird flu virus.
Over 90% of respiratory viruses like the bird flu enter your body through contact between the mucous membranes of your eyes and nose and your fingernails. They hitchhike their way into your body after being picked up on your hands.
In a World Health Organization news conference WHO Global Influenza Program leader Klaus Stohr said frequent hand washing was the best way to avoid a viral infection including the bird flu.
Every government health authority in the western world recommends hand washing as a basic precaution to prevent respiratory viruses like the bird flu, SARS, influenza and the common cold.
But washing your hands effectively is not quite as simple as it may seem on the surface. Technique is important as is the soap you use.
Antibacterial soaps are NOT recommended for regular hand washing even for health professionals.
By Andrew Cavanagh
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