Bird flu to be next global health threat

Derek Lenehan

The avian flu, commonly referred to as the bird flu, is poised to be the next global health threat. The deadly virus spreads rapidly among bird populations and can be transmitted from birds to humans if direct contact occurs. The virus may evolve into a strain capable of spreading between humans in the near future.

An outbreak would be catastrophic, similar to the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed between 40 and 50 million people, many of the dead consisting of young adults. The high mortality rate stemmed from humans’ lack of immunity to new strands and mutations of the flu.

In Ohio, planning for the possibility of an outbreak already has begun. Dr. J. Nick Baird, director of the Ohio Department of Health, said the Centers for Disease Control has been actively planning a response.

“The CDC will make their plan available in the next 45 days,” he said.

“I think we have learned from Katrina in that there must be a coordinated response from the local government to state to federal,” Baird added.

“And until we increase the amount of vaccinations, we’re back to 1918, with our only treatments being quarantine and isolation,” Baird said.

In an attempt to understand the mutations that caused the 1918 virus, scientists have taken tissue samples from two World War I soldiers that died of the flu and were buried in the Alaskan permafrost. If the trigger that caused the epidemic can be understood on a genetic level, an outbreak of avian flu could be avoided or contained with greater ease.

Kent Health Department Commissioner John Ferlito said the avian flu virus might never mutate into a form that is contagious between humans.

“You never know,” he said, “an entirely different flu virus could mutate at any time.”

Ferlito also expressed confidence in the emergency response of both the city of Kent and Kent State.

“Currently, there are no vaccines available, but the federal government is working on creating them,” he said.

Flu season usually begins in November, lasting through the winter.

Contact news correspondent Derek Lenehan at [email protected].