Flu pandemic: what you need to know

As Avian bird flu virus (H5N1) has steadily advanced from Asia, to Europe and now to Africa, Federal Health Minister Tony Clement announced a new website that will provide Canadians with a one-stop source for information on pandemic influenza and the country’s preparedness and response plan for any outbreak.

“The potential for an influenza pandemic is an important public health issue for all Canadians,” said Minister Clement. “The effectiveness of our response will depend in part on our ability to communicate relevant information to Canadians, not just during a pandemic, but in advance of an outbreak.”

The latest country to report human cases of bird flu is Azerbaijan, where five of seven people have died.

“That rampant, explosive spread and the dramatic way it’s killing poultry so rapidly suggests that we’ve got a very beastly virus in our midst,” Dr. David Nabarro, chief avian flu coordinator for the United Nations told The New York Times.

And while the virus has not yet reached North America, many experts think it only a matter of time before it turns up in birds. The US has recently annound it will increase bird flu screening during the spring migration of birds from Asia to Alaska. The screening project reportedly will test five to six as many birds this year alone as the government has screened since 1998.

A pandemic such as the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak – which started as a bird flu and jumped to humans – could be devastating. The World Bank has estimated 5 million to 150 million deaths, and a sobering Australian study put the “worst case” global economic losses at US $4.4 trillion.

Despite the dire worst case scenarios, a human pandemic caused by Avian bird flu is by no means inevitable. Many researchers maintain that avian influenza is what the name implies: mainly a bird flu. At this stage, the virus does not infect people easily and it almost never spreads from human to human. To date, it has infected tens of millions of birds, but fewer than 200 people. Nearly all of humans infected caught it from close contact with birds.

Further, some experts say that since Avian (H5N1) has been around for years, it is unlikely to mutate and develop the ability to be easily transmitted to humans.

Here are some key facts on bird flu, according to the World Health Organization:

• Avian flu is an infectious disease of birds caused by type A strains of the influenza virus
• While all birds are susceptible, some species such as wild ducks are more resistant than others. Domestic poultry, such as chickens or turkeys, are particularly at risk
• In severe cases, the flu is characterized by an onset of severe illness and death within 48 hours, with a mortality rate that can reach 100 per cent
• Humans contracted bird flu in Hong Kong in 1997, with 18 people infected, 6 of whom died
• When humans came down with bird flu in Hong Kong, symptoms included fever, sore throat, cough, and in several of the fatal cases, severe respiratory distress secondary to viral pneumonia
• Anti-viral drugs, some of which can be used for prevention and treatment, are clinically effective against influenza A virus strains, but have some limitations
• At least four months is needed to produce a new vaccine in significant quantities, capable of protecting against a new virus subtype.

“The adoption of simple flu prevention measures coupled with a better understanding of influenza will go a long way in preparing Canada for an influenza pandemic,” said Dr. Ruth Collins-Nakai, President of the Canadian Medical Association.

The new government website (www.pandemicinfluenza.gc.ca) also provides an up to date listing of countries with confirmed cases of human or bird infections. According to the website, when travelling to these countries, the following precautions should be taken:

• Avoid unnecessary contact with domestic poultry and wild birds.
• Ensure that all fowl (domestic poultry and/or wild birds) prepared for consumption is thoroughly cooked (juice runs clear and no visible pink meat) to eliminate the risk of infection.
• Follow normal precautions regarding food storage, handling and preparation.
• Get your annual flu-shot.