Killer Flu Makes 'Sars Look Like Kitten'
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Killer Flu Makes 'Sars Look Like Kitten'

Red Nova | July 25, 2005

Forget the waning influenza B, the bird flu plaguing South-east Asia threatens to be the next killer pandemic to hit New Zealand, say two Christchurch microbiologists.

Ben Harris and John Aitken, from Southern Community Laboratories Ltd, say bird flu is one step from becoming a pandemic, possibly more deadly than the 1918 Spanish flu that killed more than 50 million people.

"What we are facing is what our parents and our grandparents saw as a reality, the influenza," Aitken said.

Already, the virus, known as H5N1, has the hallmarks of a global flu crisis.

South-east Asian farms, where humans and animals live in close quarters, have become a vast breeding ground for the virus. It has crossed into humans, and more than 50 people have died since January last year.

The last step before becoming a pandemic is for the virus to learn rapid, ongoing, person-to-person transmission, Harris said.

"If the virus learns the last step, to do rapid transmission rather than just occasional human transmission, then it would make Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) look like a kitten," he said.

The world faced a new influenza pandemic about three times a century and the next was overdue. The last was the Hong Kong flu 37 years ago.

"There is absolutely no doubt that the clock is ticking towards a pandemic. We know that with certainty. We just don't know what the time is. It will come," Harris said.

The men said there was a "very strong possibility" that the avian influenza was the next big one. It was sparked by agricultural practices, particularly large numbers of pigs, poultry and people living in close proximity, common in Asia.
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"I'm prone to underestimate and I would put the threat at 8.5 out of 10," Harris said. "It may not happen, but if it does, we're in trouble."

Despite technological advances that allowed scientists to watch the virus evolving, they were powerless to stop it. The bugs were evolving at a rate far faster than humans could keep pace with.

"In the 1950s you had polio, which was miraculously turned back," Aitken said. "Then antibiotics stopped all these new staphylococcus infections from happening. Now the bugs are evolving and coming back again."

New Zealand has ordered 835,000 courses of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, at a cost of up to $40 million, to treat people who become infected and slow its spread. It will be enough to treat only one in five New Zealanders, and the Ministry of Health is taking expert advice on who gets treatment.

Christchurch virologist Lance Jennings said the outbreaks occurring in Third World countries were making the influenza more difficult to track.

"The problem with these countries is that cases are usually identified retrospectively, by which time they (the bodies) are usually cremated," said Jennings, who visited Vietnam in a World Health Organisation (WHO) team in April.

Families were often reluctant to allow samples to be taken from their deceased members for cultural reasons.

"When you have been there and understand those issues, it gives you a different appreciation of why things don't happen and why the WHO is trying to be so proactive," he said.

"The WHO is very concerned at the ongoing evolution of this virus and the possibility of this virus learning how to be transmitted from human to human."

If human-to-human transmission was occurring, as suspected but not proven, it was happening inefficiently, Jennings said.

If the virus improved its transmission, then it would spread rapidly in humans. Air travel could see the bug arrive in New Zealand within days, Jennings said.

"There is a risk there and it is continually being monitored by our Ministry of Health and, of course, by WHO. This is why WHO is doing everything in its power to communicate with countries in the region and get them to try to improve their surveillance.

"If it's not this virus, then it's going to be another virus," Jennings said.



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