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August 15, 2005

JUST A BUMP IN THE BELTWAY: On the Wing

Just a Bump in the Beltway- On the Wing August 15, 2005 On the Wing Virus may kill 60,000 in California despite new drug, study says

By DAVID WHITNEY
BEE WASHINGTON BUREAU
Last Updated: August 14, 2005, 04:26:59 AM PDT
WASHINGTON — They know it's coming. Hospitals already are monitoring for its arrival with every patient who checks in. Now scientists are swabbing wild bird bottoms in California and elsewhere in a hunt for the first signs of the deadly virus.

What has scientists worried is not the fact that the avian flu virus H5N1 already has killed at least 60 people overseas. Or that it has spread from Southeast Asia to China and Russia.

What has them convinced about the diminishing odds of escaping a worldwide health catastrophe — one study estimates that fatalities in California could top 60,000 — is that wild birds overseas no longer seem to be dying.

That means the virus is mutating, and scientists fear it has now adapted so that it can survive the annual migration of wild birds from Asia to North America without killing its hosts.

"That's a real danger sign," said veterinarian Carol Cardona of the University of California at Davis.

Cardona is part of the growing army of scientists and health care professionals gearing up to fight what could become the first flu pandemic since 1918, when a Spanish flu virus — also believed to have been spread by birds — killed between 20 million and 40 million people around the world.

More Americans died in that outbreak than were killed in World War I. And already the projections are that the next pandemic, perhaps just months away, will kill similar numbers of people.

So far, the virus has not mutated or combined with other influenza viruses so that it can spread from human to human.

"The great fear is that we will see a version of H5N1 that will spread very easily from person to person," said David Daigle of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Migrating birds may bring flu

"Most experts believe it is not a question of if, but when," he said.

According to a recent report by the Trust for America's Health, the U.S. toll could surpass 540,000.

In California, the report said, deaths could top 60,000 and hospitalizations could exceed 273,000 — unfathomable given that number is four times the amount of hospital beds in the state, according to the California Hospital Association.

Ken August, spokesman for the California Department of Health Services, said that if the nightmare scenario develops, mass quarantine of infected patients and other mandatory steps to stop the virus' spread could be inevitable.

"We could face asking the public to take some extraordinary measures," August warned.

Already, he said, hospitals throughout the state have been asked to begin monitoring for patients reporting unexplained respiratory illness and who have traveled recently to Southeast Asia.

"What we're concerned about is the flu virus mutating into something that no one has experienced and that would cause severe illness and death," he said.

While scientists and health officials stress that there is no evidence of an Asian variety of the H5N1 virus in the United States now, it could arrive at almost any time with passengers unloading from an overseas flight from Thailand, China or Russia.

Or it could arrive on the wings of an infected bird.
Over at H5N1 Blog, Crawford says:
The story says the scientists are alarmed because "wild birds overseas no longer seem to be dying." This is taken to mean the virus is mutating so that it no longer kills its bird hosts—who are therefore capable of long migration flights that could bring H5N1 into North America via Siberia.
Uh huh. I talked about planning yesterday. We don't have unlimited amounts of time.

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Posted by dymaxion at August 15, 2005 08:55 PM

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