Avian Flu: What's All the Fuss About?

The flu is one of life's aggravations that we're forced to endure from time to time. For a week or two it's nothing but fever, chills, and misery. And while people do die of the flu, in recent years, it hasn't been a number high enough for scientists to shout, "Pandemic!" So what is all the fuss about?

The answer is that this flu—a strain known as H5N1—is particularly vicious. It spreads quickly and has a high mortality rate; over half of the people infected with H5N1, also known as Bird Flu, have died.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "The current outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, which began in Southeast Asia in mid-2003, are the largest and most severe on record. Never before in the history of this disease have so many countries been simultaneously affected, resulting in the loss of so many birds." Right now, bird flu has infected people in close contact with birds. A pandemic could ensue, however, should the virus develop a way to spread between people.

Birds and the Flu

Flu viruses tend to cluster around bird populations. Typically waterfowl infect domestic birds like chickens and ducks. Some strains can infect humans. That's why scientists are fearful about H5N1.

How a Virus Changes

A flu virus can't reproduce on its own. It needs a host cell to do the job. When a virus latches on to a host cell, it injects the cell with its own genetic material—long strings of genetic code—and instructs the cell to copy that code over and over again. The result is millions of cells making millions of copies of the virus.

But sometimes a cell messes up, or makes a typo. It's this typo, or mutation, spread by the host, that can suddenly tell the virus to infect through the air. The problem is, scientists don't know whether the virus will mutate.

History and Future of the Bird Flu

A Look Through History

In 1918, there was a flu virus similar to H5N1. Initially it was difficult to catch—that is, until the virus mutated. Suddenly the world was under siege, and between 50 and 100 million people died—85 million more people than died in WWI. In fact, many believe that the crippling effects of the Spanish flu helped end the war.

In light of the recent flu scare, WHO in August 2005 called for every country to "strengthen national preparedness, reduce opportunities for a pandemic virus to emerge, improve the early warning system, delay initial international spread, and accelerate vaccine development." Though WHO and other organizations are doing their best to prepare the global community, the word is ill equipped to handle a potential pandemic.

How to Protect Yourself

What's your best defense? While it may seem dramatic, U.S. officials recommend you keep a stockpile of canned food and bottled water, along with an emergency radio, at home. Now is the perfect time to make sure you have those supplies for this or any other national or international emergency. And get a flu shot. It won't protect you from the H5N1 flu, but it can spare you from getting the common flu virus. What's more, a weak immune system is less able to fight off a lethal virus.

Looking Ahead

The news has not all been grim. Tamiflu, for example, has successfully treated patients with H5N1. However, it's not 100 percent effective—some people are resistant to the drug, which is in limited supply.

Meanwhile, a joint Indonesia-Japan venture has created a flu vaccine for poultry to help slow the spread of the flu. Japanese drugmaker Shigeta claims that Asian companies have requested 517 million doses of the vaccine. But until the flu is eradicated, the best course of action is to stay informed.