There are dozen of know flu strains, named for two proteins each virus carries. H5N1 refers to an avian (bird) flu strain that emerged in Hong Kong in 1997, killing or forcing the destruction of 1.5 million chickens, (domesticated) ducks and geese. The WHO says the quick slaughter of all potentially infected birds may have averted a pandemic.
Bird flu re-emerged in Korea in 2003. It has now been found in birds in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
All influenza viruses change quickly, which is why the standard flu vaccine must be changed every year. H5N1 is particularly good at changing. Experts fear it may acquire a key gene from a flu virus that already easily infects humans and become a highly contagious and deadly strain. So far, humans have only contracted the virus by working in close quarters with poultry.
Experts estimate that if it acquires the ability to infect people easily and spread from person to person efficiently, it will make more than 25 million people seriously ill and will kill as many as 7 million. However, other models show the virus would make 50 percent of people where it is circulating ill and 5 percent could die.
Birds that survive infection with H5N1 excrete the virus for at least 10 days, orally and in feces, making it highly likely to spread. Migratory birds, usually waterfowl, especially ducks, are the natural “reservoir” of avian influenza viruses and usually do not become sick when infected. However, domestic poultry, including chickens and turkeys, die quickly when infected.
Nevertheless, three dead migratory ducks recently were found dead in Romania. They tested positive for H5N1, prompting a European Union ban on all bird and poultry products from the country. Soon thereafter, a dozen more waterfowl were found dead in the Danube delta of Romania. Tests are pending.
The discovery of bird flu in Romania (and Turkey) supports the theory the deadly virus spreads by migrating waterfowl, according to scientists.
With this in mind, Iranian authorities have banned bird hunting as millions of migratory waterfowl head for Iran for the winter. The authorities have warned people not to approach migrating birds that fly across Iran and settle around ponds. Jordan has also banned all kinds of hunting.
H5N1 has not been detected in the United States, but migrating birds could be infected in Asia, fly to breeding grounds in Alaska, where they could mingle with — and potentially sicken — birds from North America. If avian flu is introduced to North America by migrating birds, Alaska is the most likely state where it would first arrive, because that's where the flyways intersect.
The concern is that these North American birds could then fly south and infect other birds, and possibly humans who are exposed to the birds.
Therefore, bird experts in Alaska have been testing migratory birds in recent weeks for avian influenza. Iowa issued an advisory in August, whose guidelines suggest hunters wear disposable latex gloves when handling and cleaning birds. It is extremely important to thoroughly wash hands, equipment, and surfaces that are exposed to the carcasses.
In addition, I advise hunters to take notice of any bird that looks or acts sick. Cooking destroys the virus, so there should be no risk from eating cooked wildfowl.
The question is, “Is a pandemic inevitable?” Most experts state it is a question of when, not if, this happens.
Can avian flu be treated? Antiviral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, are the only medical defense.
Is there a vaccine against avian flu? At the present time, the answer is “No.”
What to do now. Get a flu shot, because it will lessen the chances you will be the “mixing vessel” in which the avian flu combines with the human flu to create a strain that passes from human to human.
Wayne Capooth — outdoorsman, writer, and physician — has hunted extensively in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas for 50 years and has written four books. On the Internet, go to www.waterfowling.org.