Health

bird flu, avian influenza in China
Associated Press
Chinese pedestrian walks past a cage of ducks for sale in Loudi in south China's Hunan
province.

In China, Bird Flu Cases and Mass Holiday Travel Renew Flu Fears

January 19, 2009 12:58 PM
by Emily Coakley
As recent cases of bird flu worry Chinese health officials, a new American report says U.S. states are only about halfway prepared to handle a flu pandemic.

Worries Mount as Holiday Approaches

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According to China's news service Xinhua, as of Monday four cases of bird flu had been reported across China this month. The latest is a 16-year-old in the Hunan province who is “seriously ill” and hospitalized.

These cases come as China prepares for the New Year, a festival in which many people travel to be with their families, “and the authorities are concerned that the world’s biggest human migration could help spread the disease further,” reported U.K. paper The Daily Telegraph on Monday.

Poultry is a major part of the holiday feasts, the newspaper said.

Though very few people have contracted avian influenza, public health experts around the world worry that the virus could mutate and spread among people, who have almost no immunity to it.

In China, the first woman to die of bird flu this year was 19 years old. She contracted it after eating an infected duck and died on Jan. 5. A toddler has also been infected and is being treated, though there is no information on how she became ill. Another woman, 27, died over the weekend, Xinhua reported.

Bird flu has also recently been discovered among flocks in Thailand and Nepal.

In the United States, no bird flu cases have been reported. Public health officials believe it’s only a matter of time before there is another pandemic, and Reuters says avian influenza is the number-one suspect.

“The pandemic threat is real and continuing, irrespective of how much the perception of the threat may wax or wane over time. Therefore, if we are to counter the next pandemic effectively, we must prepare now,” said William Raub of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in an interview with Reuters.

A new report says states and territories have done a good job stockpiling antiviral medications and a bird flu vaccine approved last year, but pandemic preparedness remains incomplete.

Community outreach, or making plans to respond to a pandemic with nonprofit groups, schools, and businesses is something most states haven’t done, said the report, which the CDC prepared.

Some public health officials told Reuters that a lack of federal funding and tough economic times are making preparations more difficult.

“People are just trying to survive and asking ‘Is this the time to be preparing for a catastrophe?’” Mike Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Centers for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said in an interview with Reuters.

Background: Avian flu

Avian influenza is a particular flu strain called H5N1. It’s extremely contagious among birds, but relatively few people in Asia and Africa have gotten it, according to the CDC. 

Unfortunately, avian flu seems to be deadly in many cases. Since it became a worldwide public health issue in 2003, 391 people in Asia have contracted it, wrote the Telegraph, citing the World Health Organization. Of those infected, 247 have died.

Though avian influenza hasn’t shown itself to be consistently contagious among humans, “Nonetheless, because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that H5N1 virus one day could be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another,” said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reference: Other flu types

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