Threat of avian influenza pandemic grows, but people can take precautions

December 05, 2005

An editorial in the December issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings paints a picture of a world population very susceptible to an avian flu pandemic, but also offers suggestions to physicians that could help answer questions presented by patients who may be feeling anxious about the "bird flu."

Many indicators suggest that the influenza A (H5N1) virus is closer to extending beyond Southeast Asia and into the worldwide population, write Priya Sampathkumar, M.D., Mayo Clinic Division of Infectious Diseases, and Dennis Maki, M.D., University of Wisconsin Medical School's Section of Infectious Diseases. They co-authored an editorial in the current issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The bird flu outbreak in Asia is caused by the "H5N1 virus," an influenza A virus subtype producing serious disease in domestic poultry. The co-authors note that recent genetic research on the influenza A virus responsible for the largest documented influenza pandemic on record -- the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 (the "Spanish Flu") -- shows that this virus was entirely of avian origin. The 1918 pandemic was the first confirmed bird flu outbreak in humans. Drs. Sampathkumar and Maki emphasize though that major genetic alterations in the current H5N1 virus must occur before rapid human-to-human spread, essential for a pandemic, is likely.

"If an avian flu pandemic were to occur this winter, we would not be adequately prepared to deal with it," says Dr. Sampathkumar. However, the co-authors say that quarantining methods, antiviral medications and other measures could help contain an outbreak at its earliest stages, if health professionals can ensure the following: The co-authors say that even if these strategies don't curtail a pandemic, they might buy the world precious time to better prepare by ramping up production of vaccine and antivirals, both of which could save millions of lives.

These suggestions to practicing physicians may help in answering patients' questions: For the latest updates on avian influenza, see the following Web sites:
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A peer-review journal, Mayo Clinic Proceedings publishes original articles and reviews dealing with clinical and laboratory medicine, clinical research, basic science research and clinical epidemiology. Mayo Clinic Proceedings is published monthly by Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research as part of its commitment to the medical education of physicians. The journal has been published for more than 75 years and has a circulation of 130,000 nationally and internationally. Articles are available online at www.mayoclinicproceedings.com.

To obtain the latest news releases from Mayo Clinic, go to www.mayoclinic.org/news. MayoClinic.com (www.mayoclinic.com) is available as a resource for your health stories.

Mayo Clinic

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