Avian (Bird) Flu Pandemic

As many as 142 million people around the world could die if bird flu turns into a "worst case" influenza pandemic, according to a sobering new study of its possible consequences. Global economic losses could run to $4.4 trillion.

The avian flu strain that has killed more than 200 people since 2003, and the influenza pandemic of 1918 both have a "bird motif" that may latch onto and disrupt the activity of certain proteins in its human hosts.

The current epidemic is caused by highly pathogenic H5N1 strain. There is evidence that this strain can jump the species and cause severe disease in human beings with a high death toll.

The Earth may be on the brink of a worldwide epidemic from a bird flu virus that may mutate to become as deadly and infectious as viruses that killed millions during three influenza pandemics of the 20th century.

The H5N1 strain of the virus, first reported in Vietnam in late 2003, swept through 10 countries in Asia last year, devastating poultry farms and forcing the slaughter of about 100 million birds.

Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have been hardest hit after avian flu outbreaks. Indonesia has the region's highest number of deaths, followed by Vietnam.

The major pandemics of the past century -- the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, the 1957 Asian flu and 1968 Hong Kong flu -- killed more than 50 million people combined. U.N. officials said an outbreak of a potential mutant bird flu could claim between 2 million and 100 million lives.

Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said scientists expect that a flu virus that has swept through chickens and other poultry in Asia will genetically change into a flu that can be transmitted from person to person.

In Asia, there have already been a number of deaths among people who caught the flu from chickens or ducks. The mortality rate is very high -- about 72 percent of identified patients, said Gerberding. There also have been documented cases of this strain of flu being transferred from person-to-person, but the outbreak was not sustained, she said.

The genes of the avian flu change rapidly, she said, and experts believe it is highly likely that the virus will evolve into a pathogen deadly for humans.

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