Doctor shares what to do about avian flu
Avian flu could become a significant health and social problem if it begins to spread among humans, and people should remain vigilant in trying to prevent it.Dr. J. John Cohen shared his thoughts Monday on the potential of an avian flu outbreak in the United States at the Aspen Given Institute. In an interview before his formal lecture, he outlined the nature of the disease and what people should do to prepare for it.All strains of influenza originate in birds – doctors and scientists call the strain of avian flu causing so much concern H5N1. All flu virus strains spread initially only from birds to humans; the virus has to mutate to be communicable by humans. “If [avian flu] remains a bird-to-human transmission, we won’t have to worry,” said Cohen, a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine. “The big worry is this virus is going to change to going human-to-human.”Because Aspen is a resort and a hub for international travel, it seems Aspen could be a place where an international disease could take hold. But Cohen cautioned that in today’s global society, no locale will really be spared. The 1918 flu epidemic didn’t affect some isolated rural communities. But now, even the most remote communities in the United States are close to national highways and receive goods from all over the country – even the world.”I think now that all bets are off,” Cohen said.Cohen explained that viruses gradually accumulate various mutations because the simple nature of viruses makes them prone to copying mistakes.”The virus makes errors every time it makes a copy,” Cohen said. Although many of those errors render the newly copied virus useless, some make it more contagious and more deadly. That possibility is exactly why scientists are concerned about avian flu – it’s already lethal, and will be even more deadly if it becomes highly contagious among humans.Influenza has existed as a strain in birds for millennia. But the way humans have changed their relationship with nature over the years, particularly in domesticating animals, has played a part in the spread of animal-based epidemics.In Southeast Asia, for instance, ducks were domesticated because they were beneficial to rice paddies. But that made it easy for the birds to bring diseases to rice farmers. Live markets in places like Southeast Asia also can be a breeding ground for virulent diseases. For example, animals such as pigs could contract a human strain of a virus from a farmer and also have a bird strain from a duck or chicken in the market, Cohen said. That interaction in the same animal could produce a new hybrid virus particularly lethal to humans.”They take the bad bits of each virus,” Cohen said. That type of interaction is exactly what could produce a virulent strain of avian flu. As for prevention, the obvious answer is a vaccine. But that could be years off, Cohen said. Plus, it’s difficult to know which strain to inoculate against when avian flu can mutate so rapidly. If the wrong vaccine is produced, it could mean thousands of dollars wasted.Nevertheless, there are things people can do to prevent contracting the virus if it becomes widespread. Right now, people don’t wash their hands often enough, Cohen said – an important step in protecting against disease. Cohen also encouraged communities to keep dialogue open on how to handle the problem because an epidemic would overwhelm medical resources. That kind of threat could also thin out the number of workers willing to care for the sick.”If showing up to work at the hospital could be a death sentence, maybe people won’t show up,” Cohen said.Cohen said exactly what could happen is speculation, but that people and communities should still be prepared if an outbreak erupts.”You can’t quit your surveillance or vigilance too soon,” Cohen said. “Communities need to be talking about what we’re going to do.”Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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