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Dr. Blair: Avian Flu Concerns Experts

Asians slaughter chickens to stop the spread of avian flu.

By Sherry Kughn
JSU News Bureau

4 March 2005 — Most health officials try to avoid sounding like Chicken Little with their warnings about the avian flu, but they are concerned.

The recent spread of the avian flu, which is caused by a virus that started in chickens and jumped to humans, echoes similar events than began in 1997. The World Health Organization (WHO) in Toronto and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are monitoring formal and informal reports of illness and death attributed to this virus. Both are poised to issue warnings if it appears the virus could affect the health and economy of the world.

“I think I am a little more afraid of the avian flu,” said Dr. Benji Blair, assistant professor of biology at Jacksonville State University."

The avian flu, like most viruses with a potential to spread and kill millions, started in Asia. The first reports, which came out in 1997, according to an article entitled “Avian Influenza Infection in Humans” at, stated that 18 people were hospitalized and six died. A million and a half chickens were destroyed. Since that time, eight other outbreaks have occurred, four of those involving the H5N1 strain responsible for the latest deaths in Vietnam in September and October of 2004. About thirty-one deaths have been formally reported to the CDC.

Entire industries related to poultry have been wiped out in several Asian countries. An organization called Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota reports higher figures of deaths, according to a recent online article at The article, “WHO Concerned Lack of Avian Flu Reports from Vietnam Impedes Risk Assessment,” states that 65 human cases of avian flu has been reported since January of 2004 resulting in 46 deaths.

“Anytime you have a viral infection that jumps species,” said Dr. Blair, “it is more virulent in the receiving species.”

The reason is because the recipient of the virus has no immunity against the virus, said Dr. Blair, who also said a similar thing happened in American history. The early explorers who came to America inadvertently gave yellow fever and smallpox to native Americans. The explorers had immunity against the diseases, but the diseases caused more deaths among the Indian population, said Blair, than all the bullets ever fired against them.

The avian flu is capable of becoming a pandemic disease, one that can spread across entire continents. Health officials are especially worried because a pandemic is overdue. There have been three pandemics related to viruses that jumped species to humans during the past 100 years. Each pandemic killed millions during 1918, 1957, and 1968. There is some dispute, however, about the cause of the pandemic of 1918.

The WHO released word just days ago that unofficial reports from Vietnam show that several deaths have occurred there. Other countries, too, have kept outbreaks of diseases quiet, such as when China did not report the outbreak of the SARS disease until pressured by health officials to do so.

“They are reluctant because of the effect on economy,” said Dr. Blair. “For instance, if Ebola broke out in Anniston, no one would go to Anniston. Reports of outbreaks affect a country’s tourism, trade and the economy, especially if the country is selling produce, beef, or chicken. No one would be buying these products.”

A February 28 news report from Times Online said Britain has ordered 15 million doses of an anti-viral drug prescribed to lessen the symptoms and death rate of avian flu. UK officials hope for the best—that the drug will not be needed and, if it is, that the virus will not have mutated to counteract the vaccine. To date, the United States has not ordered any vaccines.

Dr. Blair does not believe anyone can predict which diseases may become pandemic. What usually happens is that vaccines are made from strains of flu that occur in Asia. By the time the vaccines are distributed, the virus will have mutated and will have become resistant to the vaccines.

“It will take an outbreak of 30 or more cases to get us geared up,” said Dr. Blair. Warnings would be issued, he said, against travel and against gathering in public places.

If the avian flu does break out in the United States, people would probably postpone ballgames, concerts, and other events where the public gathers. Schools, churches, and worksites would probably shut down for a few days. Then, said Blair, events would be up and running before too much time passed.

“A virus usually burns itself out pretty quickly,” he said.

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