Scientists Fight Back Against H5N1 Avian Flu

Sumeyya Mamuk loves animals and cared for many a stray puppy or kitten in the Yalim Erez neighborhood of Van, Turkey.

The chickens in her backyard were beloved pets, too, and the 8-year-old would feed them, pet them and take care of them. When they started getting sick and dying, she hugged them and kissed them goodbye.

Her affinity for her ailing pets, however, would cause her face and eyes to swell. She also developed a high fever. According to The Associated Press, Sumeyya was rushed to the hospital, and five days later, she was diagnosed with having the deadly H5N1 strain of Avian Flu.

Her story is one of many that continually air on national newscasts and make headlines in newspapers, for while Sumeyya was one of the lucky ones, Avian Flu has been reported in 57 countries, caused 224 infections and killed 127 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which also notes that most of the deaths occurred in Asia, with four in Turkey, and children, like Sumeyya, have been the worst hit.

Along with the usual updates on deaths, infection cases and how countries are gearing up for the worse, media coverage of the potential pandemic throughout the world seems to change hourly with reports of underreporting of instances because of budget constraints, vaccines, the wild bird factor and human transmission of the virus.

Toby Moore, vice president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council (Atlanta, Ga.), says he is discouraged by media coverage, saying it has blown aspects out of proportion and is void of rather important information.

“There are too many checks and balances in place here,” he says. “If it does happen, it will not be a naturally occurring problem. It will be because of a smuggled bird, like a parrot or game foul. If it ever does enter commercial poultry, there’s almost absolutely no way it would enter the food supply. Any bird with the flu would be put down in the blink of an eye. Federal and state governments are taking this very seriously. Even if it did enter the food supply, cooking poultry to the right temperature kills the virus.”

Exportation of U.S. poultry is also bouncing back, Moore says. “As far as exports, the flu seems to have run its course,” he says. “There has not been a lasting impact. Prices have started to come back and the demand in some countries has come back. I hesitate to say we’re out of the woods, but we never really saw a dip. What was hurtful was the impact on the prices. The prices exporters were getting were certainly down. About 85 percent of all exports are the chicken leg quarter. They were in the neighborhood of $.15 per pound and now it’s back in the 20s.”

“Long Way to Go”

Scientists throughout the world have been trying to determine the best line of defense as the deadly H5N1 virus has spread rapidly from Asia into parts of the Middle East, Europe and Africa, decimating domestic flocks with the culling and slaughtering of millions of birds.

At a recent bird flu conference in Rome that was organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Animal Health Organization (OIE), many experts were quick to say that it could be years before they fully understand how bird flu spreads.

“We still have a long way to go before we can fully understand this disease, especially as far as wildlife is concerned,” Gideon Bruckner, of the OIE’s scientific department, said in a statement.

One of the problems scientists face is that they still do not know whether the virus can become endemic in wild birds such as ducks and geese and whether these animals can carry the disease without showing any symptoms. Dr. Robert Webster, an expert on the infection, told conference attendees that the outbreak of H5N1 is due to a combination of factors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *