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The H5N1 strain of the avian flu is a virus. It has the potential to be very dangerous especially through its ways of transmission. The statistics of the current deaths and possible deaths also show the possible pandemic arising in the near future. However, this topic must be put into perspective and the common belief that it will eradicate our world is rather exaggerated. There is actually a higher chance that the avian flu will not become a deadly killer. Still, there are many possibilities and no one can be completely sure of the outcome.
The H5N1 Virus
Avian flu is probably one of the most feared possible outbreaks. The H5N1 strain is the particular strain in question. If this strain mutates, allowing for easy human to human transmission, there is an immense chance for a worldwide pandemic. This pandemic could leave the Earth barren with the possible eradication of humans unless there is a gene that allows a small percent of humans to be resistant (Siegel 33).
The H5N1 virus has been the most feared virus because of its likelihood to mutate. The structure of the H5N1 virus is the main reason of its possible mutation. The envelope of the H5N1 virus is comprised of three proteins. Two of them are the hemagglutinin (H) and the neuraminidase (N). The hemagglutinin is the layer used to penetrate the host cell. It has receptors that bind to cells, allowing it to open and infiltrate the host cells. The receptors are very specific to the receptors on the cells to which it binds. This is the reason that viruses with
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the H5 subtype have not been able to transmit from human to human very easily. Birds have been its main target and up to this point, have been affected to most. The neuraminidase serves as a mechanism used to cut the virus free from the mucus and other inhibiting factors of the immune system, allowing the virus to move about freely in the body (Tambyah, Leung 16).
Because this virus very rarely infects humans, the resistance it will face in the human immune system is predicted to be minimal. The virulence of H5N1 in its ability to multiply rapidly, making it more likely for the virus to mutate by chance. The greatest fear is that the virus will mutate in a way that permits it to gain airborne transmission, allowing it to spread rapidly from human to human.
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Already, the virus has been evolving considerably. The antigenicity, which is the ability of the immune system to resist the antigen, is also constantly changing. In addition to this is the factor that scares people the most about the H5N1 virus. If it mutates, it will be harder for people to resist the virus (Avlicino 78-79). There are currently two known clades of the virus in the world. The clades are geographically isolated from one another, though both remain within Asia. One clade is situated in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam while the other strain is located within China, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea. There is a possible third clade exists in the northern parts of Vietnam and Thailand that is thought to be even more dangerous considering its evolution rate and its current array of antigens (Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Infection in Humans). However, scientists are still unsure about the true significance of these separate clades, although it gives the virus a higher chance to mutate into a “super-virus.” Even
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so, the common belief is that these mutations are conducive to the generation of an indestructible, highly lethal virus.
Currently, the only way to fall ill with the H5N1 bird flu virus is to have extremely close contact with the birds that are sick with this avian flu. It is transmitted through mucus, saliva, and feces. If a bird is infected with the virus and these three mediums are touched and inoculated through the facial openings, there is a 90% chance that whoever touched it will become infected with avian flu. However, if humans take all the basic safety precautions, such as hand washing, it should be easy to prevent the spread of this virus (Siegel 97). Presently, human to human transmission has only been seen in two cases; one in Indonesia and the other in Thailand. The disease was only transmitted through the family members because they did not take the precautionary measures needed to protect themselves. In the case in Indonesia, a male poultry worker contracted the H5N1 avian flu. He then contaminated the rest of his family when they had close contact with ease other. The case in Thailand is a very similar scenario. A poultry worker became sick with the avian flu and gave it to other family members through close contact like the case in Indonesia (CDC paragraph 15). Similar mutations led up to the horrific 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic- a fact that concerns the World Health Organization that it could happen again. There is also a 99% chance that if the current virus mutates, it will be a lot more deadly than the flu of 1918. There are several reasons for the added lethality. One reason is that the world is more highly populated and the cities are denser. If outbreaks occur in the city areas, the possibility of a major pandemic is extremely high. Modern technology has greatly facilitated worldwide travel, which consequently allows disease to travel easily, too. Because H5N1 is more deadly to both humans and birds than the Spanish Flu was, the speed and virulence by which the virus might spread could be devastating. However, under the circumstances that the
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H5N1 virus does mutate, it will lose a great amount of potency because during the mutation, it must sacrifice its killing for in order to be able to mutate in such a way. This is because the genes that control its ability to transmit is closely related to its gene controlling potency (Siegel 32-33).
Currently, bird flu does not pose as a major threat to society, although about 300 people fall ill from the virus world-wide and about 160 birds die each year. In May of 2005, 10% of bar-headed geese were killed by the bird flu (Siegel 26). These may be appalling statistics; however, most of the birds that were infected during the small outbreaks were located in run-down poultry farms, mostly in central and southeastern Asia. Even though many of the bar-headed geese died, the specie is still thriving. They are also not being eaten but humans, therefore, the geese that are sick will not infect humans. Another benefit is that countries are adopting more advanced measures to contain this flu, such as examining the poultry farms more carefully and making sure they birds are living an a sanitary environment (Avlicino 97-101). The avian flu has also never been found in the United States. Nearly all of the birds in the United States have been vaccinated and not one bird has been recorded to have been sick with the H5N1 bird flu. Although there is the possibility that infected birds could migrate from Asia to Alaska, it is not thought to be a major problem for the human population since the migratory birds are not commonly used as food. Thus, human contact would be scarce with these birds. Wild birds, such as geese, ducks, and hawks, will likely to be the most affected in this scenario. These wild birds almost never come in close contact with humans and the only plausible way to contract the avian flu from a wild bird is to touch an infected one and not take sanitizing measures afterwards.
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The major (although improbable) worry is the food supply. If the H5N1 virus does appear in our food supply through a mistake, the USDA has devised a plan that will stop the spread of the virus. The method will be to kill and bird infected with the virus plus all the other birds living near the vicinity. Even if a case does go undetected, if the fowl is thoroughly cooked, the virus will be killed (Siegel 25-27). However, if the H5N1 virus does start to infect humans, the consequences will be very appalling. So far, about 36 cases of human avian flu have been recorded. Out of those, 18 have been fatal. Although the virus will lose its potency after the feared mutation, scientists speculate that in a worst case scenario, 48% of those infected will die even after the mutation. Although this is very unlikely, this is considered as a possibility. A more probable outcome is that the virus will mutate into an extremely contagious although mild virus, but then undergo another mutation, allowing it to regain its potency before the mutation. Furthermore, a very likely possibility is that the virus will not mutate at all, only affecting the avian population (Avlicino 40-46).
The H5N1 strain of the avian flu has been a major concern to society. Although it is a problem to be thinking of, the virus may not be as lethal as it is thought to be. The possibility that this virus will cause a pandemic is very slim and most governments are readily prepared. Even if things take a turn for the worse and the virus stays lethal and mutates into a deadly form, life on earth may not completely end because there may be certain individuals in each species who can resist the virus. The avian flu should be of a small concern but in truth, there is not much that separates its lethality from other most other diseases.
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Avian Influenza A. (H5N1) Infection in Humans. The New England Journal of Medicine. (2006). Retrieved July 25, 2008 from http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/353/13/1374
Avian Influenza (Flu). Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. (May 07, 2007). Retrieved July 23, 2008 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian/gen-info/facts.htm
Avlicino, A.A. (2006). Bird Flu: What We Need to Know. Canada: Heritage House
Cinneide, Nialle. (2007). Bird Flu: The Threat of Animal to Human Transmission. The All I Need. Retrieved July 23, 2008 from http://www.theallineed.com/health/06040703.htm
Siegel, Marc. (2006). Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Publishers Inc.
Tambyah, Paul & Leung, Ping-Chung. (2006). Bird Flu: A Rising Pandemic in Asia and Beyond? Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co.