Monday, November 28, 2005

News - Professors sound-off on bird flu - News

Though it has recently received more attention, the bird flu isn't new. There are more than a dozen strains of avian influenza that frequently sicken birds around the globe. They do not, however, frequently spread to humans and kill them within days.

The current threat is known as H5N1, a highly contagious and rapidly fatal strain of the bird flu. Once contracted, rapid deterioration of the lungs is common, with pneumonia and multi-organ failure usually following. The World Health Organization attributes nearly 70 deaths to H5N1, and, based on the current mortality rate, almost half of everyone infected will die.

In the case of a pandemic, WHO gives a conservative estimate of 7.4 million deaths, but it warns the toll could be much higher. Many wonder: if the avian flu has always been such a common bird illness, why are people suddenly becoming infected?

The avian flu is an RNA virus, much like AIDS, which means it is prone to frequent and rapid mutations, according to Debopam Chakrabarti, assistant professor of molecular and microbiology at UCF. After innumerable useless copies, the virus randomly replicated itself into a version humans are susceptible to.

This is the version that has infected about 130 people, according to WHO - but it's not the one scientists are dreading.

Now that H5N1 has mutated into a form humans are susceptible to, the next step toward a pandemic would be the last step: to have a person already infected with the human flu also contract the bird flu. In a process known as "reassortment," the two viruses would recombine inside the victim's body, producing a deadly hybrid.

Professors sound-off on bird flu - News

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